By the Numbers: Americans Cautiously Resume Air Travel

Travel plunged 95% during the pandemic, but demand is rebounding, along with new interest in travel insurance.

Sam KemmisJune 22, 2020

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The coronavirus pandemic brought air travel — and most everything else — to a virtual standstill this spring. Yet as stay-at-home orders begin to lift, cooped-up Americans have started heading to airports again.

But how quickly are Americans resuming air travel? And what precautions are they taking to protect themselves and the cost of their trips against future outbreaks? Here we break down the numbers that show what has changed.

Domestic air travel creeps back

The number of passengers who passed through airport security plummeted from 14 million per week at the beginning of March to 685,000 by mid-April, according to the TSA — a stunning 95% decline.

But the number of passengers has steadily, if slowly, increased week by week, back to 3.2 million in the week of June 8. This is nowhere near close to normal levels, however, representing a mere 18% of air passengers from the same week in 2019.

Airlines have introduced a host of safety precautions to lure wary travelers back onto their planes, including face-covering requirements, improved cleaning procedures and blocked seats to help with social distancing. Yet concern for safety and closed international borders have kept many out of the skies.

Flexibility and travel insurance on the rise

Cancellations, rebookings and all-around chaos with travel bookings have also caused many would-be travelers to take greater precautions when planning trips.

Hotels and airlines have introduced flexible travel policies to help prevent headaches in the event of further travel disruptions. Many of these policies make every flight or hotel room booking fully refundable, and mitigate the hassle of rebooking when necessary.

Travelers also seem more inclined to add optional travel insurance to their trips. A NerdWallet survey of over 2,000 Americans found that only 20% of respondents had purchased travel insurance for a leisure trip prior to COVID-19, yet 45% said they were likely to purchase it after the pandemic.

Not only are more people interested in buying travel insurance, but they are also insuring more expensive trips. According to the insurance provider Squaremouth, the average cost of an insured domestic trip was $3,567 in spring 2020, up from $3,014 in 2019. Whether this indicates that travelers are insuring their more-expensive travel this year or whether trips are generally more expensive is not clear.

In any case, it’s important to keep in mind that while travel insurance may help in the event of illness or cancellations, it usually doesn't cover “fear of travel,” even during pandemics. This fact, combined with the already flexible policies offered by airlines and hotels, means travel insurance may not always be the right choice, even in such uncertain times.

Insurance for international travel remains low

With the U.S. State Department maintaining its level four “do not travel” recommendation and many countries still restricting visitors, it’s hardly surprising that international travel would remain slower.

By one indication, domestic trips now account for 57% of insured travel, compared with just over 12% in 2019, according to Squaremouth.

Even if countries in Europe and elsewhere begin lifting their travel restrictions soon, it’s unclear whether U.S. flyers will be interested in boarding a long-haul flight in the near future.

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