Charting the trends – new COVID mutations and new international travel restrictions means muted demand during the holiday season

24 December, 2020

One of the world’s biggest selling songs and most-played from this time of year was a charity single to support the famine in Africa, but some of lyrics could are also very relevant for the world we currently live in, especially the line: “There's a world outside your window, And it's a world of dread and fear.”

After all the excitement about the approvals of multiple vaccines that will give us a big push down the path to reality, we have this week faced a stark reminder that it remains a long road to recovery as mutations to the COVID-19 virus sees the return of mobility restrictions and new constraints on international travel.

Right now we are normally seeing a big spike in travel demand as offices close and people travel to spend some much needed down-time with friends and families to enjoy the traditional holiday season. But, traditional is out the window in 2020, a year that has seen unprecedented impacts on our daily lives.

The restrictions are probably most significant across Europe, in particular in the United Kingdom where this new mutant strain of COVID-19 is most prevalent. Much of the world has blocked arrivals from the UK, now reducing controls to allow arrivals but with very, very strict quarantines in place.

European travel sentiment has expectedly weakened amidst the spike in COVID-19 cases and the implementation of lockdown measures across the Continent. The latest European Travel Commission ‘Monitoring Sentiment for Domestic and Intra-European Trave - Wave 3’ report illustrates this the share of Europeans planning to travel in the next six months falling from 54% in Oct-2020’s survey wave to 49% in Nov-2020.

Notably, less than one in five of the surveyed Europeans expressed intention to travel during the upcoming winter holiday season (by the end of Jan-2021). This represents a sharp 21% drop compared to the previous survey showing that the recent surge in COVID-19 cases and uncertainty surrounding travel measures force Europeans’ to put their travel plans on hold.

Quarantine measures remain the top concern for 15% of respondents, followed by fear of becoming ill at the destination and rising COVID-19 cases (both at 13%). Results also confirm that health and safety remain the primary consideration in Europeans’ travel plans and is especially important for respondents over 55 years old.

Despite this, recent research undertaken by ForwardKeys has revealed that there has been a last-minute surge in flight bookings for the holiday period, supported by a 2020 trend to late booking. In a normal year, tickets issued for travel in the week before Christmas tend to grow progressively throughout the year. However, in 2020, the pattern has been different, with a late rush taking place during November, acknowledges the travel analytics firm.

Whist any uplift in bookings will be welcomed by the aviation industry, international air travel over the holiday period will, in reality, be no more than “a small oasis in the desert,” according to ForwardKeys. Air tickets issued for arrivals between 19-Dec-2020 and 25-Dec-2020 look set to peak at just over a fifth (20.2%) of 2019 levels, according to the company. Bookings from 01-Jan-2020 to 31-Jan-2021 were lower still – according to mid-Dec-2020 data – at just 11.6% of where they were at the equivalent point in 2019.

The last-minute rush for international flights is a clear consequence of travel restrictions changing frequently throughout the pandemic and uncertainty about official advice concerning travel over the Christmas period. This has been seen in the many traveller sentiment surveys over the second half of 2020 that has seen consumer interest in travelling vary significantly.

They say ‘a picture paints a thousand words’. In this new regular section CTC – Corporate Travel Community offers a graphical insight into a key industry observation or trend. In this latest edition we use OAG schedule data to explore seat capacity offer over Dec-2020 and the last ten days of the calendar year.

There has been an increase in daily flight capacity over the second half of Dec-2020. The busiest day in terms of capacity are the 18-Dec-2020 and 27-Dec-2020 with over 9.5 million seats scheduled. Normally, at this time of year the daily seat level can be upwards of 15 million, actually exceeding 16 million on the 22-Dec and 27-Dec in 2019 (Source: CTC – Corporate Travel Community and OAG)
This year’s airline seat offering between 22-Dec-2020 and 31-Dec-2020 is down -43.0% compared to the same ten day period last year and even down around a tenth (-11.9%) of the level recorded back in 2010 (Source: CTC – Corporate Travel Community and OAG)