In this week’s Travel Well With Allan, we will focus on the topic “Which Airline Should I Fly During the Pandemic?” This is again a text version rather than video as there is a lot of data to share. Note our regular readers will know we are very cautious on travel during the pandemic. Nonetheless, as we get into spring we hope travel will resume and this article will prove useful.
It used to be we based our airline choice on such factors as flight times, price, and perhaps frequent flier loyalty programs. Choosing an airline during a pandemic is more complicated and we suggest you consider these factors.
It was easy for airlines to not fill middle seats when no one was flying. As airlines have put aircraft on hold and as demand has increased, most airlines are no longer doing this.
- Delta Airlines is blocking middle seats through April 30, 2021 at minimum. They have been leading the way in blocking middle seats and if any airline will extend this through the summer, it is likely Delta.
- Alaska Airlines is blocking middle seats through May 31 but only on Premium Class.
- To our understanding, all other US airlines are not blocking middle seats or limiting capacity.
Cancellation & Change Policies
Travel during a pandemic is risky. Government regulations change. Your purpose for travel might get upended. Or you might get sick, with COVID or something else, prohibiting you from travel. The more flexibility you have in changing or cancelling your flights, the better.
The good news is all major US airlines are waiving change and cancellation fees through March 30 (or March 31). You won’t get a refund if you cancel but you will get a credit. After that date, most airlines are keeping this policy except for Basic Economy fares. Basic Economy fares are the cheapest option and provide restrictions – like not being able to pick your seat and having to board last – that airlines throw at your in an attempt to upsell the ticket price. The actual seating is still in Economy class. Those restrictions will include not being able to cancel or change your ticket starting in April, so we suggest you factor this in when weighing whether to upgrade from Basic Economy to Economy.
COVID testing requirements are being driven by governments and not by airlines (or the travel industry as a whole). For example, all inbound passengers to the US, outbound US travelers to most countries, and some domestic travelers (to NY, HI, AK, etc) are required to have negative COVID tests.
However, some airlines are facilitating COVID testing or requiring it on certain flights. We suggest you check with the geography you plan to visit.
No countries or airlines that we know of require vaccination at this time. Qantas Airlines in Australia has announced all international travelers will eventually be required to have a vaccine, which is big news even though a) there are no international flights to or from Australia at the moment and b) vaccines aren’t yet widely available. Still, Qantas is leading the charge and we expect more countries and businesses to require vaccinations as they become more widely available.
In addition, some airlines are going to be more proactive in requiring or encouraging their employees to be vaccinating. Etihad Airways, based in the United Arab Emirates, recently announced all their on-board staff have been vaccinated. In the US, the CEO of United floated the idea of requiring all airline staff to get vaccinated but nothing came of it.
Airline mask requirements were important at the very beginning of the pandemic, when some airlines required them and others did not. However, airlines banded together to require masks last summer and now masks are required by the CDC and by other governments worldwide. We have heard some airlines do a better job than others of enforcing mask requirements but have no solid data on that.
Which Airline Should I Fly During the Pandemic?
The reality is that airlines form an oligopoly and, with the exception of a few mavericks, all seem to follow the lead of other airlines so that policies tend to be very similar. In this case, the only major US airline with a policy that is distinctly different is Delta Airlines, which is still leaving middle seats empty on flights through April 30. If you are planning to take a flight before then, we would suggest taking Delta, if possible. If you are flying internationally, we suggest you consider foreign airlines as well, which might have different policies.
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