Have you booked your summer flight yet? Get ready for full flights and high prices.
The return of domestic air passengers since the worst of the pandemic has been well documented. Most people flying around the U.S. have shared the trials of long TSA lines and the general crush at major and even minor airports.
Commercial air travel passenger levels have grown dramatically on U.S. airlines in the last two years. In 2021, U.S. airlines carried 674 million passengers compared to 369 million passengers in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics. There was another steep rise of passengers again in 2022, though the final figures are not in yet.
But if your destination is Europe you ain’t seen nothin’ yet, as the saying goes. In July alone, 4,335 transatlantic flights per week will shuttle between Europe and the U.S. That breaks a record set in July 2019 when there were 4,238 flights, according to Aviation Week.
There are only eight nonstop flight destinations in Europe from Seattle: Amsterdam, Dublin, Frankfurt, Helsinki, Istanbul, London, Paris, and Reykjavík. They will all be operating daily by late spring, but most Northwest travelers will continue to use connecting flights. All domestic and transatlantic carriers expect to increase capacity by July.
United Airlines, which doesn’t have nonstop service to Europe from Sea-Tac, expects to grow capacity to Europe by 32%, mostly through its hub in Newark. United is so bullish on the return of the leisure traveler that it started service to Spain’s Palma de Majorca and Tenerife last year. It reports high demand on those routes.
Alaska Airlines has mostly domestic routes. But it offers international flights via partners of their One World Alliance membership that includes Finnair, American Airlines, and British Air. A recent addition to the North Atlantic route is JetBlue Airlines with service from New York and Boston. JetBlue formerly flew to and from Seattle, but has since retreated to Portland.
In all cases, not just the North Atlantic routes to Europe, airlines are reporting record bookings. This not only means full flights but increasing prices for already-high air fares.
Even Air Canada jumped on the bandwagon when it announced it would start a new flight from Montreal to Copenhagen in June.
Delta, with its strong schedule in Seattle, is part of the mix. “We are seeing robust demand across our expanded footprint in Europe and expect the spring and summer to set new record revenues,” says Delta Air Lines president Glen Hauenstein.
If it’s been a good year for you it looks like an even better year for the airlines. The addition of more business class and premium economy seat may strain your budget. But those seats go straight to helping the bottom line of seat/mile costs that airlines use to calculate their fares, their costs, and their profits.
“It’s always been the largest premium market in the world,” according to Geoff Van Klaveren, a former planner and strategist for British Airways. He added that “we expect two-thirds of the revenue to come from one-sixth of the seats,” referring to pricier seats and suites up front.
Business Class travel has outstripped the return of leisure travel to the extent that passengers with high levels of flight rewards may no longer be able to count on upgrades from the cheaper seats.
Asia has both helped and hurt the transatlantic routes. Routes to Asia have been slower to return to service. China has just opened up. A new agreement between the U.S. and China has lifted the old one-flight-per-day restriction from West Coast cities to Shanghai and Beijing. But ramping up the services to pre-COVID levels is a challenge that will take time.
The good news for airlines is that the larger aircraft with higher capacity that normally fly the Asian routes are now available for the transatlantic runs. This means more seats on fewer flights. Good for demand and good for airline profits.
A further problem for airlines flying to Asia from Europe is Russia. Specifically, the use of Russian airspace that allows direct Europe to Asia flight paths. Once convenient, those routes are now not available both because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the fact that insurance carriers won’t insure planes flying over Russia at affordable rates.
Lufthansa’s Asian service found a novel solution for travel from Frankfurt. Boeing recently held a retirement ceremony for the iconic 747-400 passenger version, a favorite of long distance flyers. But Lufthansa, after 18 months of not flying its 747-400s, has brought those planes back in service.
The German airline flies the plane nonstop from Frankfurt to Qingdao in China. The airplane’s range permits it to fly a circuitous nonstop route that avoids Russia.
As European travelers know, London’s Heathrow and Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport are corks in the travel bottle. Last summer’s mini-boom in transatlantic travel produced rush-hour congestion at those and other airports.
I arrived at Charles De Gaulle in Paris in September, theoretically called the “shoulder season” between summer and fall. I was greeted by thousands of travelers backed up at the immigration windows despite all of them being in service. A kindly French ground staff person took my hand and led me to a special line, without which I believe I might still be there.
Those scenes led to capacity limits at both Heathrow Airport in London and Schiphol in Amsterdam that claim to have helped control the crowds. Heathrow reported that 92% of passengers went through security in under 10 minutes during late December’s Christmas peak.
I’d hate to be the leftover 8%.