Will travel recover from COVID? And should you care?

travel industry recover from COVID

If there were ever a time to feel sorry for the travel industry, it’s now. The pandemic has wiped out enormous parts of the business. Airlines are bankrupt. Hotels are shuttered. Travel advisors are out of work. It looks like they’ll never recover from COVID.

But should you care?

Before you say “yes,” consider the situation just a year ago. It was yet another record holiday travel season. Airlines were busy adding new rules to maximize their profits. Hotel rates were going through the roof. And the industry’s overall attitude was: If you don’t like our prices and service, just stay home.

So now, with travel companies practically begging us to return during one of the most dangerous times of the pandemic, it’s a fair question: Why should you care?

Travelers have mixed feelings. Darren Butts, a retired facilities director from Green Valley, Ariz., just returned from Honolulu. He found deserted streets and empty restaurants, which left him feeling sympathy for the tourism business. But he’s also pleased with the changes. The take-it-or-leave-it attitude so common before the pandemic had disappeared, replaced with employees eager to serve.

“I think the industry needed a big wake-up call,” he says. “COVID supplied it.”

Will the travel industry ever get over COVID-19?

The travel industry will bounce back. In fact, it already has started to, according to new research from Deloitte, which suggests consumer sentiment bottomed out in October.

“The travel industry will recover faster than people expect,” predicts Max Leitschuh, a senior transportation analyst at WorldAware, a security consulting firm.

For example, airline passenger counts in China are above where they were at this time in 2019, and China’s biggest airline turned a profit last quarter, he notes. VivaAerobus, a major Mexican airline, just announced that it restored all its pre-pandemic capacity, although COVID-19 is still a significant concern in Mexico.

“If a vaccine takes hold in the first half of 2021, we can expect airline passenger numbers to be above 90 percent of their pre-pandemic numbers by the end of 2021,” he says. “And we also expect similar trends in the rest of the travel industry.”

So the answer to the question, “Will travel recover from COVID?” is yes — and probably a lot faster than anyone thinks.

Some travelers don’t feel sorry for the industry

In the meantime, travelers aren’t eager to offer a helping hand.

“Personally, I am enjoying the comeuppance,” says Andrew Chau, an aviation blogger. “This is because of the rude service and bad behavior some of the giant companies have exhibited.”

Chau says the 2017 incident in which airport security dragged David Dao off a United Airlines regional jetin Chicago is emblematic of the travel industry’s arrogant, customer-hostile attitude. These companies have asked for government bailouts and implored their customers to return but offered nothing meaningful in return.

Maybe hard times will change that.

“Now, with the companies struggling to survive, they will make sure that the service is on point and make our travel trips a much more enjoyable experience,” he says.

Tommy Vekhayn, a health technician from Saint Michael, Minn., says he doesn’t feel sorry for hotels that have had to cut their rates during the pandemic. Before the outbreak, he remembers hotels “in the middle of nowhere” that routinely charged rates of more than $400 a night.

“And when I tried to ask why they were charging so much, I got the good old take-it-or-leave-it attitude,” he says.

Now those same hotels have lowered their rates to less than $100 a night, and their service levels are outstanding.

“Travel companies were taking advantage of people by hiking the price by as much as 300% to make a profit,” he says. “That was just unfair to the customer.”

But the industry says it deserves your sympathy

Many in the travel industry say they understand the fury that travelers feel toward the travel industry, especially airlines. They haven’t always treated their customers well. Seeing them suffer is — well, kind of fun.

But that’s shortsighted, says Kathleen Panek, owner of the Gillum House Bed & Breakfastin Shinnston, W. Va. If travelers don’t support those businesses, and they perish, things could get much worse.

“If the big airlines get their comeuppance — and the smaller airlines go out of business — there will be no options,” she says. The strongest travel companies will turn into monopolies, able to set prices and reset service levels back to the Soviet era.

“The travel industry deserves our sympathy and support now more than ever,” says Limor Decter, a travel advisor with Ovation Travel Group.

That’s because the travel and tourism industry is a vital part of the global economy, affecting the livelihoods of millions of people. Wishing it ill will have a ripple effect, hurting economies, businesses — and ultimately, you.

The travel business will recover from COVID. But will it come back as an industry that has learned a lesson about not taking its customers for granted? Or will it redouble its efforts to take advantage of you, imposing more junk fees and ridiculous rules?

What travelers do now matters. By supporting the businesses that get it, they can determine who survives the pandemic. Yes, you should care about that outcome.

Who deserves your sympathy?

The travel industry is no monolith. For every giant airline receiving government bailout money, there are thousands of smaller operators whose struggles get almost no attention. Here’s who you should feel sorry for — and who deserves your business.

Travel advisors

There are so many stories of travel agencies struggling to make it through the pandemic. It’s heartbreaking. “If consumers feel they’d like to support a travel agent, I can assure them that it has never before been so welcome,” says Shylar Bredewold, owner of Odyssean Travel. “You may find those businesses actually have more time and attention to share with you in exploring your travel dreams as part of the purchase process.”

Small businesses

The major airlines and hotel chains may have deep pockets and access to government bailouts. “But most of the industry are small businesses who for no fault of their own have no route out of this mess until the pandemic is contained,” says Mark Whitman, founder of Mountain IQ, a travel company. “These are small locally-run travel companies, local hotels, and activity-based operators. They have seen their businesses destroyed and, in most cases, don’t have access to support.”

Responsible travel companies

“The travel industry is packed with good and bad players,” says Ketti Wilhelm, founder of Tilted Map, a travel blog about sustainability. “It’s never been easier to tell the difference.” For example, airlines like Delta and Southwest, which limited bookings or blocked off middle seats, are worth supporting. The others? Maybe not so much.

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Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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