Most Passengers Are Leaving New Flight Bookings Until The Last Minute

Flight bookings are on the up. Globally, although demand is still a long way off what it was a year ago, there’s a steady upwards trend in terms of flights, interest and reservations being made. However, there’s another trend emerging: very last-minute bookings. In fact, the vast majority of passengers are booking with three days or less before their departure, and that’s a problem for airlines.

Bookings are starting to pick up but in a very last-minute way. Photo: Getty Images.

Bookings are on the up

As airlines around the world begin to build out their networks once again, passenger bookings are on the up. Although the growth is described as ‘modest’ at the present time, it is a hopeful indicator of recovery in at least some parts of the world.

IATA’s Chief Economist Brian Pearce, on a webinar hosted by World Aviation Festival today, commented that he believed we had passed the low point. In April, revenue passenger kilometers (RPK) worldwide were down 98% from the year before but have been slowly but surely climbing ever since.

China aviation recovery
Flights operated by China’s three biggest airlines. Image: Spire Aviation

This recovery has been particularly marked in China, although more recently the Middle East has begun to accelerate too. Data published by indicates a similar trend in the US. Although flight searches are still down more than 50%, it’s an improvement from the situation in early April, where they hit a low of minus 80%.

Looking at flight searches for individual cities, we can see where the recovery is happening even better. For searches in the US, Kayak’s data shows that, for the week of June 14th, searches for locations in Florida were only down between 8% and 19% compared to the same week last year.

But Brian Pearce revealed something even more interesting about people’s flight booking habits.

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Most people are booking within three days of departure

In May this year, IATA evaluated the number of days between booking and travel to see how much visibility airlines are getting. This showed that passengers are booking flights much later than usual, with more than half making a booking less than 10 days before travel.

Most Passengers Are Leaving New Flight Bookings Until The Last Minute
Source: IATA Economics

According to the data, 41% of passengers are booking with between 0 and three days before departure. This is in stark contrast to the trend in May 2019, when just 18% of passengers could make these last-minute bookings.

A further 20% of passengers book with a time period of between 11 and 20 days from reservation to flight, which is largely in line with what we saw last May. However, the really big difference is in the long forward bookers. In May 2019, almost half (49%) of passengers make their flight bookings with 20 days or more to go. Now, that number has dropped to just 29%.

Why this is a problem for airlines

This lack of forward visibility is creating something of a headache for airlines. Although many are filling schedules with offers of flights, they are under no illusion that at least some of those flights may never take off. Bookings are low, and to make the operation economic, airlines have been noted to be consolidating lightly loaded flights into fewer services as a result.

Delta Air Lines grounded planes
A lack of forward visibility is making it hard for airlines to plan their recovery. Photo: Getty Images

However, with the vast majority of passengers now booking at the very last minute, airlines will struggle to plan for staffing and fleet requirements. This could make it difficult to know how many aircraft to bring back into service, as well as how many crew and ground support staff they’re going to need on any one day.

Later bookings are understandable, from the passengers’ point of view. With the COVID situation still relatively unstable, people aren’t willing to commit to travel until they can be sure it’s safe, and that the flight won’t get canceled. From an airline perspective, however, it’s something that will create yet another challenge in what’s already a very tough market to be coming back to.

Are you planning to book your flights at the last minute? What would encourage you to book sooner? Let us know in the comments.