Ready or not, the airline folks are prepared for what they expect to be a busy summer. But the specifics can still be a bit unclear.
1. The Mask Muddle
In the fight against COVID-19, the lawyers have taken over from the doctors. The answer to the question “Will I have to wear a mask or not” is a firm “it depends.” The CDC said you have to wear a mask on public transport, at least through this week, but a judge said “not to fast” and struck down the rule. The CDC will probably appeal, but only if it intends to extend the mandate beyond May 3, which I believe is likely. Similarly, some private-attraction mask or vaccination requirements are under legal attack, with no way to guess the outcomes. COVID-19 still has a few nasty surprises up its sleeve, and you won’t see any permanent worldwide relaxation of mask or vaccination requirements. Clearly, if you want to be able to travel freely this summer — most modes, most destinations, most attractions — you need to be prepared to wear a mask and show a vaccination card or equivalent even if you never actually have to do so.
2. Airfare Sticker Shock
Live with It. Some folks thought airlines would lower summer airfares to entice travelers back onto planes. Surprise: They don’t need any enticing; they’re raring to go. And filling planes. And paying top dollar. Transcon economy round trips for July seem to be starting at $650 for bare-bones economy and $750 regular economy, with lots of itineraries going over $1,000. I’m seeing quite a few four-digit fares for long-haul prime-time flights. International, too: Chicago-London round trips start at more than $1,000. I’m not going to predict exact trends, but I can second George Hobica’s longstanding recommendation: Shop around as much as you can, but when you see a good deal, pounce.
3. New Airline Options
To me, the most interesting domestic air service innovation this year is Breeze’s new fall schedule linking Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco with White Plains, N.Y. Early economy fares are as low as $400 and first class as low as $750. Sadly for most of you, the schedule strongly favors folks flying to/from the wealthy Westchester County and Connecticut suburbs; ground transportation from White Plains airport to central New York City is a real drag.
Internationally, in June, new startup Norse Atlantic will start linking Ft. Lauderdale, Los Angeles, Orlando and New York/JFK nonstop with Oslo. Plans include other European and U.S. gateways. Flights will be on Boeing 787s with standard and premium economy seating. Norse hasn’t announced fares yet, but they’ll be low. If this plan generates a sense of déjà vu, you wouldn’t be wrong. The planes, schedules, and fare goals seem to duplicate what Norwegian did a few years back — and failed to make a success of it. The development reminds you of the old adage about doing the same thing over and expecting a different outcome, Nevertheless, Norse Atlantic will give it another try.
4. Family Seating
As of this writing, the DoT has not done anything about requiring that airlines seat families together without demanding pay for seat assignments. But it’s quite likely that DoT will initiate some sort of rule-making procedure before the end of the year. It’s also likely that a rule will pass — this is an obvious issue of fairness and it also has a lot of political juice behind it. And when a rule passes, the airlines will again whinge about “excessive regulation.” I’m having a tough time figuring out why the airlines have not taken the initiative to fix an obvious problem they could equally obviously fix for themselves. Maybe they just like to whinge.
5. Airport Access
Two big and long-delayed rail developments that impact airport access are still expected to open this year: Extension of Washington Metro’s Silver Line will greatly ease access to Dulles, maybe by summer, and Long Island Rail Road access to Grand Central will help JFK travelers reach Manhattan’s East Side, maybe by fall.