Bigger Overhead Bins and Holiday Spikes: 5 Things Airlines Revealed About Future
October 26, 2021
By Hannah Simpson, Washington Post
Air travel is not back to pre-pandemic levels, but far more people are flying now than at the same time last year. And as airlines tell it, those numbers are expected to keep increasing as coronavirus cases drop, international borders reopen and business travelers get moving again.
Over the past couple of weeks, executives from the country’s largest airlines shared updates on their performance over the last quarter and expectations for the months ahead. Here are five things for fliers to know from those earnings calls.
Bigger overhead bins are coming — or are already here
Carriers including American and United are adding planes with bigger overhead bins or retrofitting aircraft to add larger spaces for carry-on bags. United chief financial officer Gerry Laderman said he saw the larger bin in action on a recent flight.
“The flight was completely full, and everyone found room for their bags,” he said.
The Wall Street Journal reported this month that American has extra-large bins on two-thirds of its single-aisle planes, while United announced orders for 270 aircraft with bigger overhead spaces in June.
More people are booking high-end seats to go on vacation
With fewer business travelers filling the expensive sections of the plane, leisure travelers are paying more to fly in relative comfort. Delta, United and American all said they are seeing the trend play out in first class, business class and upgraded economy section seats.
“We believe that through the pandemic, we’ve created kind of a new class of customer, which is the high-end consumer that wants these products that maybe didn’t have as much access to them because they were given to the business customer earlier in the booking process,” Delta Air Lines President Glen Hauenstein said.
Airlines are working to get ready for full holiday flights
American and Southwest — which both ran into operational snarls earlier this year, resulting in delays and cancellations — said they were taking measures to make sure they will be ready for the busy Thanksgiving and Christmas travel stretches.
“We expect a lot of passengers, tremendous pent-up demand, especially as vaccinations take hold and infection rates decline,” American Airlines President Robert Isom said. “And we’re going to be ready.”
He said measures are in line with normal holiday season prep, including getting ready to de-ice planes, help people find their way around airports, manage security lines and staff the gates.
Southwest said booking trends for the holidays are in line with pre-pandemic levels in 2019.
“In the near term, we have focused hiring efforts to increase staffing at the airports to give us more resources, to handle those activities when our load factors increase over the holiday period,” president and chief operating officer Mike Van de Ven said.
Business travel is making a comeback
The rise of the delta variant over the summer put the brakes on employees returning to the office — and, in many cases, to the skies. But recent trends show that more companies are allowing workers to travel, a pattern that is expected to pick up significantly in early 2022.
“Business travel has picked up over the last month with volumes now reaching the highest level we’ve seen in the recovery,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said earlier this month. “In the last week, our domestic business volume was close to 50 percent restored.”
The company said it expects between 80 to 100 percent of business travel to be back by the end of next year.
American similarly said it expects business revenue to return to 2019 levels by the end of next year, with long-haul international trips the slowest to come back.
United said domestic business demand had rebounded to pre-delta levels or better.
“What we’ve been told … is that we should expect really an acceleration of business traffic next year with a lot of pent-up demand,” chief commercial officer Andrew Nocella said. “We have a lot of clients that need to get back on the road.”
Vaccination status of employees at some airlines is still a mystery
As federal contractors, airlines face a looming deadline to get their workforces vaccinated. Some are being more transparent about their progress than others.
United, which has mandated vaccination, said recently that aside from a small number of workers who sought exemptions, more than 99.7 percent of U.S. employees had been vaccinated. And Delta said earlier this month that 90 percent of employees had been vaccinated, with the expectation that the number would reach 95 percent into November. That airline has not made the shots mandatory, but it is charging unvaccinated employees an additional monthly insurance fee of $200.
American and Southwest, on the other hand, would not yet say how many of their employees have been inoculated. American CEO Doug Parker said the number “continues to grow,” and that “virtually everyone” would be vaccinated by Nov. 24.
At Southwest, CEO Gary Kelly said he wasn’t prepared to share percentages yet because he didn’t believe they “would be helpful or realistic.” He said he encourages everyone to get vaccinated but is empathetic with those who don’t want to. While Kelly said the majority of employees had responded to the mandate by getting vaccinated or seeking a medical or religious exemption, the company hasn’t heard from many others yet.
“It would just be pure speculation on our part how many of those are already vaccinated,” he said. “We just haven’t heard from them yet for whatever reason.”
The union representing the airline’s pilots had asked a federal judge for a restraining order to stop enforcement of the mandate, but the judge rejected that request Tuesday, the Dallas Morning News reported.