September Provides An Early Snapshot On Fall Travel Outlook

Just over a week into September, the airline industry is coming off of a summer that was, considering the circumstances, a successful one. The air travel recovery accelerated as June, July, and August brought people who had been cooped at home out into the world to see the national parks, beaches and reconnect with old family and friends they had not seen in months. Now, with schools back in session, offices starting to reopen, and the rise of variants threatening to upend travel, the outlook is a little uncertain. However, September is providing a snapshot of what the travel environment this fall could look like.

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US airlines are bracing for the continued slowdown in air travel this fall, but it still appears numbers will be relatively strong considering the circumstances. Photo: Getty Images

Air travel in early September

Below is a graph of air travel from September 1st through September 11th, the last available day with data at the time of writing:

September Air Travel
Passenger numbers from September 1st through 11th. Data: TSA | Graph: Simple Flying

The peaks are on Fridays (September 3rd and 10th). The lowest days for air travel have been September 4th, 5th, 8th, and 11th. However, the lowest that the airline industry has seen passenger numbers dip to was 1.3 million in a single day on the 11th. The average daily passenger number for September is 1,694,489 passengers.

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Labor Day was strong

Monday, September 6th, was the Labor Day holiday. This long weekend, which is the last unofficial weekend of summer, was incredibly strong. From Thursday, September 2nd, through Monday, September 6th, 9,229,142 passengers took to the skies. Last year, only 4,135,949 passengers flew over the same five days around Labor Day.

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Travelers came back to airports for Labor Day, indicating a willingness to travel, but preferring to maximize their vacation by flying around holidays. Photo: Getty Images

While there was a hit to numbers due to the rise of the Delta variant, Labor Day was still a good one for airlines. What the holiday shows is that, mostly, leisure travelers have been resilient and held onto their bookings despite the public health situation. One factor that has led to fewer swings with travel is the vaccine, with a large majority of the country’s population that is eligible to receive the shot already receiving at least one dose.

Business travel is not back

Post-Labor Day, business travel ramps up. With kids back in school, people resume taking to the skies to see clients, go to conferences, and conduct important face-to-face business meetings. Last year, in September, business travel was almost nonexistent. This year, there was a lot of hope that business travel would come roaring back with schools reopening and most employees in the US vaccinated.

Around the world, leisure travel has largely rebounded faster than business travel, and the same is true in the US. Photo: Getty Images

However, the recent rise in the Delta variant has caused a bit of a scare and dampened that return of business travel. This has tempered some expectations for the quarter. Airlines even pulled down some of their schedules for the quarter, but only by a few points.

Fall travel is slowing down, but still much better

In general, fall travel is slowing down, but it is still much better than 2020. Daily passengers are roughly 200-250% of 2020 levels. Daily numbers are at roughly 70-75% of 2019 levels. While, as a percentage of 2019 levels, numbers are still low, they are quite reasonable considering that business travel is not back in full swing yet.

A recovery is still coming. The recent surge in the Delta variant and associated concerns over the virus has delayed the return of business travel, but only by a few months. Business travel is key for many full-service airlines to get back to sustained profitability without government support.

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Airlines are pulling down some flying, but it is only a couple of points of a hit if even that. Photo: Getty Images

A seasonal slowdown in leisure travel was also expected. Many leisure travelers are families planning their travel around schools, while others are waiting for the holidays to use their vacation days and book air travel. An associated ramp-up in business travel typically helps keep numbers relatively high, as it did in 2019. Based on recent comments, the deceleration in bookings and close-in cancellations have started to stabilize. Business travelers have indicated their return to the skies is coming, but a couple of months delayed.

Are you planning to travel this September? Let us know in the comments!