Air Travel Is Back—Here's What You Need to Know About Flying This Summer

Routes, change fees, flight credits, oh my!

Female traveller standing in front of Flight display schedule in the International airport
Virojt Changyencham / Getty Images

On May 16, the Transportation Security Administration counted 1,850,531 passengers transiting through its airport checkpoints—it’s the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that that number has breached the 1.8 million mark. While we’re still not back to total normalcy (on the same day in 2019, more than 2.6 million passengers went through TSA security checkpoints), there’s no doubt that travel is coming back fast. Here’s everything you need to know about the state of air travel right now to help prepare you for a summer vacation.

Airlines are rapidly resuming routes.

As demand for air travel dwindled, airlines cut all but essential routes in their networks, and sharply reduced the number of flights per still-existing route, too. But with vaccinations rolling out and destinations reopening to travelers, airlines are seeing much more demand, and they’re reinstating routes all over the world. On May 17, United announced that it expects to return to 80 percent of its July 2019 schedule in July 2021, noting a 214 percent increase in summer bookings this year over last.

Change and cancellation fees are still (mostly) waived...for now.

One of the biggest positive changes to air travel to come out of the pandemic—at least on the passenger side—is that airlines’ hefty change and cancellation fees have been permanently removed. Or have they?

“When permanently eliminating change fees, airlines left out some notable exclusions, including basic economy tickets and select international ones, too,” said Zach Griff, a travel analyst for The Points Guy. “Airlines were offering limited-time flexibility for basic economy tickets during much of the pandemic, but that’s already been scrapped. As of May 1, basic economy tickets purchased with American, Delta and United returned to their customer-unfriendly, pre-pandemic restriction: use it or lose it.”

On top of that, those “permanent” fee waivers could potentially make a return at some point in the future, though Griff notes that move “remains to be seen.” He is sure about one thing, though. “The airlines are definitely working hard to find a new revenue source to replace the $2.8 billion dollars they earned from change fees in 2019,” he said.

You might need to spend your airline credits soon-ish.

Right now, most airlines have their credit deadlines set for the end of this year or sometime early next year, with one notable exception: Delta has extended its credit voucher expiration dates through the end of 2022.

“Delta’s competitors are likely taking a wait-and-see approach to further extending flight credits,” said Griff. “If travel meaningfully resumes by the end of the year, then they might not feel the pressure to offer additional flexibility for using credits. If it doesn’t, then further extensions are likely in order, just like the past year when airlines made numerous months-long extensions due to the pandemic.”

If you have airline credits, be sure to check their expiration dates and don’t let them to go to waste!

The in-flight experience is returning to normal.

During the height of the pandemic, flying became a very bare-bones experience, with no regular meal or beverage service. Some airlines might’ve offered you a pre-packaged snack bag across cabins. But in-flight dining is now making a comeback, with most airlines offering limited options, including alcoholic beverages in economy (for a fee, naturally) and hot meals in first class.

Middle seats have made a return, too, somewhat unfortunately. During the pandemic, nearly every airline blocked middle seats to enforce social distancing, opting to lose revenue in the form of safety. But as masks alone have been proven to be highly effective in preventing in-flight transmission—even more so than social distancing—airlines have resumed filling their cabins. Delta was one of the few holdouts, but it started booking middle seats this month.

The one thing that remains quite different from pre-pandemic air travel is that you’re still required to wear a mask on all airlines. While mask mandates are lifting across the country, it’s still federally required to wear a mask on interstate public transportation, including planes—and that’s not likely to change any time soon. 

It’s easier than ever to earn airline status, but don’t expect a status extension quite yet.

Most U.S. airlines have made it much easier to achieve status this year by lowering qualification thresholds across all tiers. For instance, United has dropped its Silver Premier qualifications from 12 Premier Qualifying Flights (PQF) and 4,000 Premier Qualifying Points (PQP) to just eight PQF and 3,000 PQP. (You can also achieve Silver Premier status after earning 3,500 PQP in total—down from 5,000 PQP per usual.)

But Delta is an outlier here, too. Rather than reducing qualification thresholds, the airline has opted for a status accelerator. For all flights from April 1, 2021, through December 31, 2021, Skymiles members will receive bonus Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs) and Medallion Qualifying Dollars (MQDs)—the full amount is determined by what type of seat you purchase. On top of that, awards flights will now count toward status qualifications. 

Even though it’s easier than ever to earn status on airlines, travel is still not back 100 percent, so the airlines may extend status for another year. But don’t hold your breath. “With domestic travel ramping up, airlines don’t want to extend status now,” said Griff. “If they did, there’d be little incentive to fly with your preferred carrier throughout the summer and into the second half of 2021.”

Right now, Air Canada is the online airline to have extended status thus far. If any of the U.S. airlines were to follow suit, it likely wouldn’t be until the end of the year, after many frequent fliers will have flown to earn 2022 status.

Article Sources
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  1. TSA. "TSA Checkpoint Travel Numbers (current year(s) versus prior year/same weekday)." Retrieved May 17, 2021

  2. United. "United Airlines Takes Big Step Toward Returning July Flying to Pre-Pandemic Levels." May 17, 2021.

  3. Delta. "More Ways to Protect Your Plans." March 31, 2021.

  4. NPR. "What's the Risk of Catching Covid-19 on a Plane?" October 20, 2020.