With airfares plunging, will you go home for the holidays?

With air travel demand plummeting this year, you might think airlines would try to make up some of that lost revenue by raising fares, but that’s not what happened – not in the second quarter, at least. And experts aren’t expecting holiday fares this year to be anywhere near as high as their 2019 levels.

According to an analysis of second quarter domestic airfares by Cirium, an airline schedule and data tracker, ticket prices during April-June of this year were, on average, 26% lower than during the same months a year ago. That’s not much of a drop, considering travel demand was down by 75% to 95% during those months and airline seat capacity was slashed by as much as 85% before starting to rise in June.

After the initial crash of the air travel market in the spring, airlines had been counting on a slow but gradual revival of business as the year progressed, and that happened for a while during the summer months as they focused on promoting leisure routes. But then coronavirus cases started to spike around the U.S., especially in the Sunbelt, and many prospective passengers thought twice about traveling. That led carriers to revise their capacity growth plans downward, and while numbers aren’t out yet for third quarter pricing, it probably remained depressed as industry capacity stalled out at around 40% of 2019 levels.

During the second quarter, according to Cirium data, the biggest drop in average fares – 47% — was at Hawaiian Airlines, which had its market mostly erased as its home state imposed a coronavirus quarantine on visitors. Second quarter fares dropped 26% at American, 25% at Southwest, 14% at Delta and 10% at United, Cirium said. Changes in domestic fare levels also varied by market, with prices to Florida down by 29% and flights to New York City down 14%.

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Given the lack of a firm rebound in air travel, there should be plenty of bargains for trips around the holidays later this year, usually the busiest and priciest time to fly. Hopper, an app that crunches big data to predict changes in airfares and the best time to book, came out with its annual holiday travel forecast last week. Hopper said it expects domestic Thanksgiving airfares to be 41% lower this year than in 2019, with an average roundtrip fare of $173. For Christmas air travel, Hopper predicts average domestic fares will be down 40% from last year, with an average roundtrip price of $222. Is that low enough to get you to fly?

The big travel meta-search site Kayak also crunched some data from customers who visited the site in July and August to research airfares for trips from Nov. 15 to Jan. 4. Kayak found that domestic flight prices in those searches were down about 16% from the same time last year. “It’s cities in Florida seeing some of the biggest price drops including Fort Myers, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Orlando – all of which are seeing price drops between 29% and 34% compared to the prior year for the same time period,” Kayak said.

Here’s the bigger issue about holiday travel, though – especially travel that the airlines call “VFR” trips (visiting friends and relatives): Some important voices are hinting that it might not be a good idea this year, especially considering the ongoing increase in COVID-19 cases being reported by dozens of states.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s primary expert on the pandemic, said in a recent CBS interview that he has downsized his Thanksgiving plans. “I would love to have it with my children, but my children are in three separate states throughout the country and in order for them to get here, they would all have to go to an airport, get on a plane and travel with public transportation,” Fauci said.

“They themselves, because of their concern for me and my age, have decided they’re not going to come home for Thanksgiving,” he said, “even though all three of them want very much to come home for Thanksgiving.”

Fauci added: “Given the fluid and dynamic nature of what’s going on right now in the spread and the uptick of infections, I think people should be very careful and prudent about social gatherings. You may have to bite the bullet and sacrifice that social gathering.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week issued guidelines for holiday get-togethers, with advice on how to calculate risk. It said anyone considering a trip to a family gathering should consider a number of factors, including the level of coronavirus spread at the destination, whether the event will be indoors or outdoors, the duration of the gathering, the number of people attending and where they are coming from, and whether they observe social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing.

Will you be flying, driving or planning to visit relatives during the holidays? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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