Young People Can Save Air Travel. When Will They?

The most flown generation shares their thoughts on their post-Coronavirus travel

A decade ago, I left my hometown of fifty-thousand people and endless beige strip malls, nervously clutching a boarding pass. It was my first international flight. A year abroad would soon turn me into a life-long parishioner of the church of travel; crowded rows of airline seats have become my pews, the safety announcement my sermon. Travel and joy have become interwoven in my life. I spent two years flying-back-and-forth for a long-distance relationship (spoiler: I married that boy). And, I have worked for nearly a decade advertising travel, tourism and hospitality brands. This travelogue of a life means — like many in the industry right now — I am obsessively focused on knowing: what will become of the future of travel? The group of flyers I’m most interested is, selfishly, my own, but for good reason; Millennials are the most traveled generation, clocking in at an estimated 35 traveling days a year. With their influence and behaviors, they can single-handedly change the course of the industry during/post-COVID.

The question is when will they?

To find out what the future may hold for younger travelers, I made a little journey (via phone) to a diverse range of Millennial flyers across the country.

Super-Travelers: Desire is Strong, but their Timelines Vary

Ilana lives in NYC — blocks away from the eerily silent stretch of Time Square — in the hardest-hit area for COVID-19 cases in the country. Before the outbreak she was what I would call a super traveler. I have never known her to not be planning at least two trips at any given moment, so, being grounded has been especially hard on her. “I honestly have no idea when I’ll travel again, and it’s breaking my soul,” she told me. I know she means it. I asked her whether she would have any trepidation about traveling again after experiencing the crisis that she’s living through in New York. “For me the worry is less so about going to certain countries — like Georgia or Vietnam, for example, which are doing much better and are safer than NYC. It’s more so that I have no idea how America is going to handle it, and I’ll be able to leave.” The fear is not unfounded. The European Union banned travelers from the United States. Still, Ilana is optimistic. “The second I get a glimpse that things are becoming normal, I will book a trip within seconds. ”

“The second I get a glimpse that things are becoming normal, I will book a trip within seconds.”

Larissa can sympathize with Ilana’s outlook. She is also an avid-traveler who recently experienced the apex of COVID-19, but from a European hotbed.

Larissa had imagined a year abroad in the Italian region of Piedmont, learning about culinary anthropology first-hand. But now, classes are held in a familiar state-side living room in Piedmont, California at 5 AM, in order to accommodate her Italian instructors and international peers that she left behind. When COVID-19 decimated the region she flew home right before total lockdown…but not without making a stop for a week in Lyon, and a trip to London. After COVID-19, her future travel plans might not look anything like this. “I might pick less popular destinations, and maybe hop around less from city to city. And maybe doing more local travel instead of far flung destinations every time.”

Larissa would be in good company with the over one million members of Girls Love Travel, a Facebook group of self-proclaimed travel junkies, myself included.* A majority said they would be traveling local or domestically first, seeking out National Parks, campsites, or good routes for road-trips. The sporadic nature of COVID-19 might spell the end of Millennials who multi-hop — going to additional scenic locations just to “do it for the ‘gram.” The social-media grand-tours of multiple country-stops may be replaced for a more focused type of travel.

Many of my 100 GLT respondents said they wouldn’t travel until there was a vaccine, some put a year on it (2021–2025). Others optimistically intended to take existing trips slated for the fall or winter, hoping that it just might be out of the reach of the virus. Even among diehards, there is an air of wait-and-see.

Opportunity Flyers Weigh Desire Against Demand

I’ve been known to make my decisions on where and when I’ll travel based off of fares and market conditions; including a Christmas in Egypt during the start of Arab Spring, a trip to Greece during their economic crisis, and, recently, a spontaneous trip to France during their nation-wide strikes. It drives my poor dad crazy. Such opportunity trips, however, allow for cheaper fares and a look at the character of a country that is not often seen by anyone but locals. They also carry an obvious risk (like stern talks from your father). Opportunity trips require an enormous amount of flexibility, optimism, resourcefulness and nerve. The group willing to do them is small, frugal, and are often short-window bookers. But, with the possibility of COVID-19 not going away entirely — or flaring up or returning — this style of flying may become every traveler’s reality.

“I would be nervous, but I would buy them. Assuming I have money, I guess. When else in my life will I find cheap flights to great places?”

Skift, a news source for global travel, estimates that it will be one to two years before mass consumer confidence stabilizes. Other industry experts think two to three years is more realistic. With airlines in need of immediate revenue, there will be widespread efforts to entice younger flyers. They are a demographic that is experience-driven and more willing to accept risk, with a tendency to think of themselves as invincible. The hoard of young Florida spring-breakers and 4th of July revelers demonstrated in spades. A survey by Destination Analytics found that Millennial and Gen Z travelers are less uncomfortable with the idea of flying in the near-future — compared to older generations — with more saying their next trip by air will be this year. As a younger Millennial (who I’d classify as no stranger to uncertainty), my friend Tyler is exactly who they will court. He’s willing to listen to the proposition.

Tyler is an actor from Los Angeles, who, at the beginning of COVID-19, excitedly sent me news of round-trip tickets from LAX to London for $200; airfare to Europe had usually been beyond his budget. When posed with the reality that traveling cheaply, now, could hold some viral risk, Tyler said “I would be nervous, but I would buy them. Assuming I have money, I guess. When else in my life will I find cheap flights to great places?” The sentiment is one undoubtedly shared by gig-workers, freelancers and many Millennials who work in unstable industries. Spirit Airline’s CEO Ted Christie has reported the ultra-cheap airline has already seen an uptick in travelers and bookings who have been wooed by low-fares, which he believes “will be the hallmark of the post-COVID 19 traveler.’’

The potential for low-fares in the near-term offers a rare and enticing opportunity for Millennials and Z that have found travel difficult due to financial barriers.

Nonwhite Travelers Carry Additional Fears — and Resiliency.

Rooted in historical and systemic prejudice, minority groups have long been the scapegoats for public health crises. Since the global rise in COVID-19 cases, there has been a rise in prejudice. The ignorance and racism of Trump branding COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus” has resulted in harassment, emotional distress and financial loss for many people of Asian descent. Extremists hate-groups carry the fallacious message that transmission is caused by minority groups, and immigrants. “People of color and immigrants are to blame for everything — just, no. It’s always our fault. It’s unfortunate,” says Serita Wesley.

“Women of color have been traveling more in recent years, they have more experience now, but I’d say there’s probably a layer of apprehension.”

Serita is based in Portland, and is the co-founder of On She Goes, a digital travel platform and podcast, whose mission is one that “helps women of color travel more confidently, more adventurously, and more often.” While the COVID-19 virus is making every traveler a little less adventurous and confident, I wanted to know if Serita thought COVID-19 posed unique challenges for the women she built her platform for. “Women of color have been traveling more in recent years. They have more experience now. But, I’d say there’s probably a layer of apprehension,” Serita noted.

Even in the best of times, Black women and women of color face cultural barriers to travel and are more prone to experience sexual and racial harassment, discrimination and violence. As concerns over the pandemic joins discussions about racism in the forefront of our national consciousness, the experience of safely traveling while Black or non-white is even more intertwined. Serita shared, “The majority of our things (fears) are people induced, so the apprehension is because of other people — not due to germs. We’re going to see people use this (COVID) as an excuse to exercise their prejudice, blaming minorities and immigrants. There’s an encouragement to be discriminatory. There will be some level of racial profiling (post-COVID).” In Serita’s eyes, however, this won’t be enough of a deterrent to keep young non-white travelers from taking to the skies altogether. “POC are generally resilient because of the lens of trauma, of having gone through so much from the start. We’re better adapted for the possibility for stir.”

The New York Times reported there is nearly five million Black Millennial travelers alone in the US, a group commanding at least $63 billion in spending in 2018. Minority travelers may face additional obstacles, as racial profiling and prejudice could morph into sanitation prejudice during the travel process, or additional discrimination at destinations. It could possibly cause minority travelers to rejoin air travel at a slower rate. If the travel-industry is hoping to revive demand, they’ll need to realize that the great potential among young Black flyers and travelers of color — and the great weight that follows the click of “Purchase Ticket.”

Young Business Travelers Will Come Back…But By How Much?

When I met Maria and Patrick for dinner in January they just had flown in from their home in Vegas for a business seminar in El Segundo. Over pub food they told me they were making a New Year’s resolution to travel more for fun this year. Maria is an immigration attorney, who usually maintains a heavy business travel schedule. She’s not nervous to return. “I’m probably going to get it (COVID-19) at some point. And, I have to travel for work.”

While business travelers like Maria only account for 12% of airlines’ total passengers, they are the most valuable group. With their frequency, ancillary spending and higher ticket purchases, business travelers are typically twice as profitable for airlines. COVID-19 however, has made many business ‘trips’ happen over Zoom, raising the question…did this ever need to be done in person? Employees reportedly think they are more productive working from home, causing us to reconsider the need to be physically present to effectively do business. It calls into question the future frequency of business trips among Millennial business travelers.

“I’m probably going to get it (COVID-19) at some point. And, I have to travel for work.”

Similar to younger generations, business travelers have proven to be another optimistic flying group, saying that their next trip by air will be during this year. The more frequent the business traveler the more comfortable, but the number are still low; 24% of heavy business travelers feel comfortable flying now, compared to 12% of regular business travelers, according to Ipsos. For heavy Millennial business flyers like Maria, travel is a necessity. That necessity could help pave the way to mass normalcy, much like how business flyers helped rebound the travel industry post-9/11. And Maria’s New Year’s resolution to take pleasure trips in addition to her business flights? “Oh, did I say that? Yeah, probably not. I’m probably the only one that feels this way, but since I’m always flying, I really like being home right now.”

Grounded: When Safety and Economic Realities are Nonstarters

Miles and Jill got married last October. After the added expense of making a cross-country move to DC, they had made plans to postpone their honeymoon to Europe for November of this year. They aren’t regular travelers compared to the likes of Ilana or Maria, so the trip was already a big deal — besides it being a honeymoon. But, Miles said, “We’re definitely rethinking those plans. I think we’re going to wind up doing something domestic.” I asked him whether he could be tempted, like our friend Tyler, to fly sooner if cheap tickets came about. It wasn’t enough. “Price isn’t the major issue for us, it’s about the safety. It’s not necessarily the (disinfectant) spray, it’s also the number of people on the flight. Short answer is, it’s all up in the air. We’ll see where everything is in a few months.”

Many Millennials and Z have become grounded not by safety fears, but because of the financial devastation caused by COVID-19. Millennials in particular have been famously crushed economically. They went into COVID-19 with the reality that they make less money, have smaller savings accounts, have less money invested, and have hefty childcare, rent and student debt payments to their name. And now, they are also the generation hardest hit financially from COVID-19, along with Gen Z. In a report from Data for Progress, 52% of people under 45* have lost a job, been furloughed, or had their hours reduced. That’s compared to 26% of people ages 45 and up.

“Short answer is, it’s all up in the air. We’ll see where everything is in a few months.”

While many fares are low right now it still isn’t an industry fire sale, and there is plenty of fine print. Some airlines have looked to shift fee generation elsewhere, like American, who silently raised checked bag fees mid-pandemic. Unless you made it through COVID without job loss — and didn’t already carry student-loans, debt, or dependents — the financial reality for many Millennials coming out of COVID-19 will be that of being grounded.

Millennials have been a transformative force in nearly every industry, reimagining the nature of commerce for all. Gen Z will likely be no exception. How they take to the skies post-COVID-19 will likely lead the way for all travelers. That being said, the fears and hopes of these younger travelers transcend generations; this virus affects all people, making all of our worries strikingly common. COVID-19 has forced us to reflect on our comfort around other people and places, reexamine our thoughts on societal responsibility and our role in the world, and pause to think about our interconnected lives. As Serita told me, “This is the equalizer, we’ve all gone through it, you won’t go to a place that hasn’t go through this in your travels. Keep that in perspective.”

Which, as I think about it, are some of the very things that we hope traveling will give to us.


*The group is open to all ages and nationalities, though anecdotally, it appears Millennials are a large portion of its members

**Editorial disclosure: The author works at an advertising agency, RPA, on Southwest Airlines; this article reflects my personal views and does not necessarily reflect the opinions, business conditions, strategies or perspectives of either company.

Where culture & consumerism meet. Advertising Strategy Director, Business Insider’s Rising Stars of Madison Ave | Stalk me here:

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