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What a year this has already been. The world seems to have truly turned upside down. The travel industry has faced multiple gut punches, thanks to social distancing being the norm. Lockdowns in many countries around the world have meant that public movement has come to a temporary standstill. Just like me, I’m sure there are plenty of frequent travelers who are shocked if not worried about the state of the travel industry and the economy. Not too long ago, we were constantly on the road. Now, many have been asking the question as to when travel could come back to normal. In an ideal world, I’d love to simply flip a switch and see the world return to normalcy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like it’s happening any time soon.

Defining Normal Travel

The travel industry has been swift in introducing new measures to assure passengers that it’s safer to travel. The key selling point here has been to convince consumers about their personal safety while traveling during a global pandemic.

Also, we’ve seen several publications publish TSA data to show how numbers could be rebounding depending on how many people crossed TSA checkpoints. However, how does one define normalcy here? For the industry, it could a return to capacity or revenue levels.

The IATA, which represents the airline industry has also revised its estimates. A few weeks back, they were confident that travel would return to normal by 2021, only to revise the same estimate later to 2023.

In its true style, the Onion posted a really funny take about the situation.

How do we as frequent travelers define a return to normalcy? On a personal note, I’d define a return to normal levels when I could travel the same way I used to before Covid-19. For example, I may find more award space or cheaper fares in the short term. However, will I be able to get to a particular destination without any hassle? Will there be quarantine or testing requirements? Do I have the risk of getting infected while in transit and then possibly putting family at risk?

normal travel

I could resume travel right after restrictions are lifted, but will the experience be the same?


Why am I asking these questions? This is primarily to point out that the experience of travel isn’t the same any more and for good reason. In conclusion, travel numbers could well rebound, but the experience isn’t likely to be the same, at least for a year.

Crunching the Data

In addition to passenger numbers, I’ve been looking at other data points while trying to project a return to normalcy. In many countries, we’re seeing a second wave of increased cases of Covid-19. This is only bound to postpone reopening plans even further. Also, recent moves by many countries also indicate that many are still figuring it out as case numbers rebound. This is indicated by countries first announcing that they’ll reopen, only to scale it back later.

  • Skift reports some grim data from the US travel association as they predict travel spend to drop to record lows. As per their data, travel spend will drop from 1.12 trillion in 2019 to $622 billion by the end of 2020
  • Similarly, Executive Traveler opines that as per their research, a full return to normalcy will only happen two years after the pandemic is completely under control
  • The IATA represents the airline industry. As cited earlier, they’ve now changed their estimates. After pointing out initially that we’d see a recovery by 2021, they’re now projecting a return to normal only in 2023. The IATA also esitmates that the travel industry will lose up to $39 Billion in the second quarter this year. You can read IATA’s own projections here
  • A few countries are scaling back their reopening plans already. Not too long ago, Australia and New Zealand were talking about resuming travel between the two countries. Australia just announced this week that its borders will not reopen for international travel until 2021. Canada recently did the same when it postponed the date for reopening the US-Canada border
  • Cambodia has imposed the requirement of a $3,000 deposit and $50,000 worth of travel insurance cover if tourists want to travel to Cambodia. Many countries around the world already have similar restrictions in place, that require testing and quarantine periods

Recovery in Phases

I see this recovery happening in three stages:

  1. Public Health recovery: Case numbers around the world start falling. Most major populations around the world have the virus under control.
  2. Economic Recovery: Businesses reopen fully and normal activity resumes. Unemployment rates tank gradually and people have more money in their pockets to spend.
  3. Travel Industry Recovery: Given the promising public health and economic data, governments around the world deem it safe to fully reopen normal economic activity. Restrictions on movement are completely lifted.

Given the way things stand today, stage three seems like many months away, if not years.

The Pundit’s Mantra

The level of corporate travel is often an indicator of where things stand in terms of recovery. We’ve already seen major tech companies announce that their employees can continue working from home till the end of the year. I got into the miles and points game due to my corporate travel. Just like many other corporate travelers, I’m also under no obligation to resume corporate travel until 2021. This advisory seems to be pretty standard across the board in many industries.

I wish the news was better. However, the current state of economic affairs and public health, coupled with a resurgence of case numbers, tell a totally different story. On a personal front, I don’t mind waiting it out longer before resuming travel in full swing. In my case, the travel experience matters as much as the mere act of traveling. Miles and points aren’t going anywhere. I’d rather wait longer for a safer and more enjoyable travel experience instead of rushing into it. In the interim, we can always do road trips and other short stays to keep the adrenaline flowing.

But, your decision making process could be different. How do you plan to chart your future travel plans? Tell us in the comments section.


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