Signs of spring are all around—we’re in Daylight Savings Time, the Pirates are in training camp, and at Pittsburgh International Airport, tourists soon will be smelling of sunscreen and wearing shorts and flip flops as they return to town on Caribbean charter flights.
On Saturday, for the first time in more than a year, passengers from Cancun, Mexico, and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, will be arriving via a non-stop flight booked through Vacation Express and Apple Vacations. Their return trip from tropical locales is an important milestone in the region’s recovery from the COVID pandemic.
“We are very excited about these flights,” said Bryan Dietz, Vice President of Air Service Development at Pittsburgh International. “The seasonal charter industry has always been a key part of Pittsburgh’s air service network to help people fly nonstop to where they want to go, and its return shows that international travel is safe and viable. During the pandemic, leisure travel has outpaced business travel, but this is another positive step in the long path toward normalcy.”
It’s no surprise that charters are the first international flights to return. They were the last flights to suspend operations at the pandemic’s outset, as business travel was suspended swiftly but some vacationers were looking to squeeze in one last trip before quarantines and shutdowns.
Now, after a year of restrictive travel rules, the rollout of COVID vaccines has vacationers eager for new adventures overseas.
“One basic factor that underlines everything is demand for travel,” said Michele Olson, marketing director for tour operator Vacation Express. “Operating flights and reopening hotels are costly, and companies are simply not going to take on these costs and hope for the best—these are decisions that are made based on what travelers want. And they want to travel. Our non-stop flights from Pittsburgh to Cancun and Punta Cana are a clear indicator that demand for travel has increased to the point where we are confident that a non-stop flight will be successful.”
According to Olson, Vacation Express has seen bookings jump 40 percent in one week since widespread distribution of the vaccines began. It’s almost like old times.
“This puts us on par with booking levels last seen in 2019,” she said.
In addition to the vaccines, Olson said stimulus checks and people understanding and adhering to public health guidelines are also spurring more people to travel.
Passengers who regularly take spring break trips to warmer weather will see a difference when returning home at the airport’s customs hall. They’ll find more hand sanitizing stations, plexiglass shields and social distancing decals.
Airport officials suggest that those traveling internationally download the Mobile Passport Control app, which can expedite the entry process and make some parts of the experience touchless.
Based on current schedules and subject to travel restrictions, other international service taking flight soon includes Spirit Airlines’ thrice-weekly service to Cancun in May and Air Canada restarting its flights to Toronto in June. The trips are a welcome addition to an airport that saw a 62 percent drop in travel last year due to the pandemic.
With that dip, the entire tourism industry—resorts, hotels, tour operators, airlines and airports—understands how important cleanliness and safety protocols are to customers. One of those measures in place, Olson said, is reduced capacity at hotels and resorts.
And if that’s not enough to entice you to travel, Olson says one other factor makes this a good time to consider vacation travel.
“Pricing is at record lows, with 4- and 5-star resorts offering fabulous rooms for costs normally associated with lower star ratings,” she said. “As more people get vaccinated, and the closer we get to reaching herd immunity, the more travel will return to normal levels—and along with it, higher prices.”