Gone are the days of the Friday-Sunday weekend express. With the spread of telecommuting, U.S. commuters have changed their air travel patterns, from weekday flights to longer business trips to higher costs for comfort.
Between telecommuting and trying to make up for lost trips during the pandemic, U.S. airline customers have developed new habits, whether it's flying on weekdays, extending their business trips or paying more for comfort.
Thanks to the flexibility offered by their employers and new technologies such as Zoom meetings, workers are no longer glued to their desks and have a less constrained schedule.
As a result, instead of returning from their trips on Sunday evening or Monday morning, passengers no longer hesitate to take a flight on Tuesday, or to leave on Thursday for the weekend, reported American, United and Delta on the occasion of their quarterly results.
On routes between New York and Europe, for example, "we used to cut flights on Tuesdays and Wednesdays," said Andrew Nocella, United's chief commercial officer. "This winter, we have a larger percentage of routes operating every day of the week."
In the same vein, the demand was spread out beyond the school vacations.
Delta has seen a surge in travel to Florida in September, a month that is usually slow. Some people "couldn't even get tickets to Disneyland," said Glen Hauenstein, a Delta manager.
United recorded its third best month in history in September.
"For some, it may simply be that demand was so high for the summer months that they couldn't afford tickets or decided to postpone. Others may have wanted to use credits earned from cancelled flights during the pandemic before they expired," says Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research Group.
In any case, airlines expect this trend to continue, at least in the short term, with, for example, higher-than-usual traffic between the Thanksgiving long weekend at the end of November and the Christmas vacations.
This trend makes their job easier.
"We normally adjust our pilot requirement for the period from June 15 to August 15," Andrew Nocella noted. "If we can spread that time period out, it makes us more well rounded."
Traditional business travel, booked through companies, has not completely returned to its pre-pandemic level.
"Many frequent travelers have re-evaluated this aspect of their lives and no longer want to be road warriors," notes Henry Harteveldt.
On the other hand, more and more people decide to extend a trip by a few days or even to work temporarily from another location.
"I went to Paris for a meeting last week and spent the weekend there for fun," Glen Hauenstein recounted. "Before, I probably would have gone straight home."
At American, 45% of revenue now comes from this category of travelers who mix business and pleasure, compared to 30% for tourists and 25% for pure business travel.
This evolution seems to be a boon for airlines: these travelers are more likely to subscribe to loyalty programs or book their tickets directly on the airline's website, said Robert Isom, the head of American Airlines.
The companies have finally taken advantage of the willingness of some travelers to pay a little more for an improved flight.
"They pay for comfort, better services, less stress and hassle, they pay for seats with more legroom, premium economy, and even for those who can afford it, business class," notes Henry Harteveldt.
It is still "difficult to speculate" on whether the latter trend will persist, especially with the economic downturn, but Chris Raite of investment firm Third Bridge argues.
Faced with strong demand, and lacking sufficient aircraft or pilots to offer more seats, airlines have been able to significantly increase their prices in recent months.
"Now we want to see if they can keep the high prices in the fourth quarter and beyond," notes Chris Raite.