Air Travel 2021: A Magical Time of Vaxcations, No Change Fees, Medical Partnerships, and the 737 MAX
With 2020 happily behind us, everyone’s now pondering when it’s safe to travel again.
When can Americans fly to Europe? When can Europeans visit Thailand again? How will air travel change beyond the pandemic?
The Safe Travel Guide team is publishing a series of articles outlining our predictions for travel in 2021 below.
First up? Air travel.
To all Av Geeks, jetsetters, and lovers of flight, we wish you a year of safe, healthy, and mindful travel.
1. Post-vaccination, 2021 will be a magical time to travel without over tourism
Prior to the pandemic, travel industry insiders worried about over tourism. With millions of tourists overwhelming destinations like Venice, Bali, and Prague simultaneously each year, cities started to became overrun and homogenized losing aspects of what made them popular in the first place.
Covid-19 changed that in 2020. People lucky enough to travel last year were pleasantly surprised to find popular destinations with ample breathing room — and locals eager to welcome them.
Once you’re vaccinated, 2021 holds a myriad of opportunities to travel safety and without the pre-pandemic crowds. Some have started planning these “vaxcations” or post-vaccine vacations already. And it’s wise to plan ahead and move as soon as you’re ready.
While we sincerely hope the world travels purposefully on a long-term basis, if the pandemic’s taught us anything, it’s to make the most of the present and take nothing for granted.
2. Airlines continue their partnerships with medical & disinfection brands
In early 2020, airline brands were not viewed as experts operating during a pandemic.
To address this, airlines promptly struck partnerships with medical institutions (e.g., Cleveland Clinic, University of Washington Medical School) and disinfectant brands (e.g., Purell, Clorox).
Some airlines also hired or appointed medical officers or medical advisors to act as spokespeople.
While certain airline brands have had medical officers or doctors on staff for years, others hired or appointed medical leadership at the onset of the pandemic to guide the airline’s Covid-19 policies and ongoing health and safety operations.
Either way, in 2020 medical officers became important spokespeople for airlines. Credentialed doctors or public health experts increased consumer confidence in the airline’s policies and spoke with authority about how an airline protects passenger health.
And the trend is much broader than the airline industry: companies from food processors to cruise lines are adding health experts to their C-suites in a trend that’s likely to continue and expand.
Medical brand partnerships and officers are public associations that validated an airline brand’s Covid-19 readiness, raising its credibility.
Covid-19 changed travel expectations of health, safety, and cleanliness for the long term. Brand partnerships range from a superficial association (e.g., mentioning the partner in a press release or web page) to a holistic commitment where the partner company plays an active role in advising the airline’s health and safety policies or provides testing or insurance coverage to passengers.
A list of airlines and their public medical and disinfection partnerships is shown in the table below.
In 2021, we predict that airlines will deepen and expand these credibility partnerships — some similar to those cited above and others increasingly creative and niche — to differentiate their brand for the long term.
3. Airline mile/point discounts + low short-term demand means great deals
Frequent flyer miles and airlines points have always been a smart way to grab a great deal — particularly for first and business class long-haul flights.
To point-hacking beginners, it’s often cheaper to buy points or collect them via a credit card than to pay cash for a business or first class ticket.
With low demand throughout 2020, airlines will offer steep discounts on their mileage in early 2021 and possibly beyond. Two airlines to watch:
American Airlines is offering up to 70% in bonus miles when you purchase miles by January 10, 2020.
Alaska Airlines‘ Mileage Plan offers some of the best flexibility with booking award travel on multiple airlines, including Emirates, Cathay Pacific, and Japan Airlines (JAL). Stopovers are included in award bookings and point value is good. Plus Alaska joins oneworld later this year, which means lounge access and other elite benefits. While Alaska is not offering a bonus mileage promotion at the time of publishing, we anticipate them offering one in January of February 2021.
Combine points discounts with still-low travel demand and you can grab some amazing deals now for travel later this year post-vaccination.
4. The Boeing 737 MAX returns to the skies
In 2019, Boeing’s 737 MAX aircraft faced what seemed like an impossible battle.
The newest version of the ubiquitous 737 was grounded after terrible accidents in Ethiopia and Indonesia, which resulted in the deaths of 346 people.
Investigations revealed that the aircraft had faulty flight systems: pilots were unable to properly control the plane after takeoff which caused the aircraft’s nose to point downward.
However, 20 months after its grounding, with Boeing’s reputation tarnished, the 737 MAX returned to the skies in late December 2020. American Airlines flew the plane from Miami to New York LaGuradia.
While Boeing and Airbus have faced safety issues launching new aircraft models in the past — the Boeing 787’s electrical troubles come to mind — no modern aircraft has cause as much safety concern as the 737 MAX.
Still, with so many major airlines betting their short-haul flight strategy on the future of the 737, the aircraft will become a reality for many passengers — and that starts in 2021.
American, United, and Southwest all have substantial 737 MAX fleets, though Southwest is still awaiting plans to schedule the aircraft back into service.
American has also said it will provide flexibility to any customer who doesn’t feel comfortable flying on the 737 MAX, allowing rebooking without fees or cancelling the flight in exchange for future credit.
5. So long change fees; hello new ways of booking flights
Several major airlines — including Alaska, American, Delta and United — stopped charging change fees on most tickets in 2020.
After introducing flexible tickets due to low demand during the pandemic, the airlines eventually concluded tickets without change fees should continue indefinitely.
Southwest Airlines doesn’t charge change fees, and didn’t prior to the pandemic.
While the elimination of change fees doesn’t apply to all tickets (the notable exception is basic economy fares), the move is a step forward in customer-centric, flexible travel.
Anyone on the fence about booking a flight for a possible trip in the future can make the booking with the confidence it’s easy to reschedule should plans change.
When air travel begins to return to pre-pandemic levels, we predict savvy travelers will leverage this flexibility into impressive travel itineraries. Amazing resort deal in the Maldives in October? Book a flight.
We’re excited to make the most of change-fee-free air travel ourselves.