The Daily Flyer
Welcome to the January 11, 2021 edition of “The Daily Flyer,” The Higher Flyer‘s newsletter that gathers up and summarizes some of the day’s most important happenings in the world of airlines, hotels, award points, and other travel-related things. Today’s main feature picks up where last Wednesday’s entry left off and offers 10 more predictions for 2021. It also covers higher flying’s uncomfortable intersection with acts of sedition, updated elite status qualifications (or not), and a list of COVID test providers.
The Headline Feature
To help celebrate 2021’s arrival, The Higher Flyer is using back-to-back editions of “The Daily Flyer” to predict 21 stories, developments, and happenings in the coming year. It’s a tricky time to be looking ahead — the crystal ball is especially cloudy — and literally everyone, from airlines and hotels to commentators and travelers, is limited by a sheer number of unknowns that all stem from the state of and the effects of the pandemic. For better or for worse, 2021 is shaping up to be transformative for the industry; consider this a preview of how things could change. Some of the following entries are as safe as they can be, there are some hot takes too, but with so much up in the air (har har har), my guesses are as good as yours. I’m curious about what you might think! Leave me a comment below or shoot an email to Paul@TheHigherFlyer.org if you’re so inclined. And, in case you missed it last week, click here to read the first part/the first 11 predictions.
Now, without further ado…
12. Lower qualification standards are nice, but they won’t make it much easier to attain status…
As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak — and the subsequent evaporation of demand for travel — a number of airlines and hotels have relaxed their elite status requirements for 2021. This is a way for the companies to encourage their loyal customers to return when the time is right, and at face value, there are some enticing opportunities. For example, you can become a top-tier 1K member on United after accruing 15,000 qualifying points (or rather spending $15,000 on United-related expenses), whereas in the past you had to accrue 24,000 points/spend $24,000. That’s a substantial discount, but that’s still a lot of money when your travel is likely to be way down. Moreover, as long as most international borders are closed to foreigners, mileage/status running will be limited too (in addition to being ethically questionable). Unless you can justify spending that kind of money, good luck being able meet even these lesser standards. Would it even be worth it?
13. …And companies will be scaling back benefits in the name of saving money.
As airlines and hotels continue in survival mode, their loyalty programs are certain to be trimmed in order to reduce non-operating costs. Each cut could be largely inconsequential — perhaps an airline might reduce the number of complimentary upgrades it awards or shut down a dedicated call line for elite members — but they’ll collectively add up and cause the value of the status to fall. It’s ironic because these companies should be incentivizing their customers to return (and thus further stimulating their recoveries), but every reduction in service actively undermines their most loyal ones. Marriott received a lot of (justified) criticism when it gutted its existing program and rolled out Bonvoy in its stead a few years ago, but in due time it will be considered a harbinger of what was to come elsewhere in the industry.
14. The perks and opportunities that remain will feel particularly higher flyer (even if they’re not).
While loyalty programs are going to be getting weaker and less-enticing in 2021, most higher flyers probably won’t notice any significant differences… at least for the time being. As long as the coronavirus is out of control, most folks will be staying at home, and with fewer flying on planes and sleeping in hotels compared to years past, the perks entitled to actively-traveling status-holders will become more exclusive by default. The benefits will be shared by a smaller customer base — the passenger/guest experiences might feel more exclusive than before — until when things inevitably go back to normal. The cuts will then rear their ugly heads and the effects of the airlines’ tighter belts will definitely be felt.
15. Award points will be further devalued, but the effects of those could be negated for the time being.
Award currency devaluations are inevitable in the ways that death and taxes are, and as is the case with slashed elite benefits, they don’t make a lot of sense in 2021. After all, it’s better financially to fill a seat on a plane and a bed in a hotel — even if they’re “free” for the customer — than to leave them empty. Conventional wisdom be damned though, and airlines and hotels are going to weaken their points in 2021. Watch specifically for American to follow Delta and United and eliminate its award chart this year. Once that’s gone, all three carriers will have free reign to raise the costs of award tickets to whatever exorbitant levels they like. Higher flyers shouldn’t fret just yet though. In order to stimulate their economies, these companies will need to create incentives to encourage people to travel, and miles can help them accomplish that. Accordingly you can bet on attractive mileage specials and discounts to purchase points… among other things. Stay tuned!
16. Previously restrictive airline fares will become more forgiving, but they won’t get any easier to understand and they certainly won’t come without a cost.
It became trendy in 2020 for airlines to make like Southwest and eliminate change fees. The headlines have been overwhelmingly positive, but like many things in the industry, looks can be deceiving and there’s fine print galore. You no longer will face obscene penalties if you want to move your flight, but that’s only if you’re flying in “regular” economy class. If you’re in “basic” economy then too bad, get ready for a fine. No matter what though you’ll be on the hook for the difference in fare, and that could be quite expensive. Nothing is going to change much in that regard, and these adjustments will enable corporate management to expand the price gap between “basic” and “regular” economy. Going forward, upcharges will eventually mirror the several-hundred-dollar margins between “regular” and “flexible” economy. The adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same” definitely applies here.
17. Long haul travel will become stagnant, more centralized and far less convenient.
Luxury long haul used to be the bread-and-butter for many legacy carriers, and New York-London for example was the most lucrative commercial route in the world. These two cities, as well as many other major markets, were saturated with business customers who would regularly travel in premium cabins on expensive contract fares. The pandemic has made demand for these flights next-to-non-existent and flying most of them is now financially untenable for airlines. As a means to cut costs while maintaining some level of connectivity, American, Delta, and United will relocate international service entirely to their biggest hubs in 2021. Nonstop options — and exciting new destinations seemingly every month — used to be common out of a number of cities, but now unless you live in the New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, Miami, Atlanta, or Seattle areas, be prepared for a layover or two the next time you go abroad.
18. Cheap and unorthodox point-to-point short haul flights will be all the rage.
The Higher Flyer previously predicted (in Part 1) that 2021 will be huge for low cost carriers, and their legacy counterparts will take notice and attempt to mimic their max-utilization and route planning strategies in some form or another this year. As long haul travel continues to scale back, airlines like American, Delta, and United, plus some of their peers elsewhere in the world, will have excess capacity stemming from under-utilized aircraft. So, instead of parking them at a loss (a plane on the ground doesn’t make money after all), look for them to be deployed on less-conventional routes to generate revenue. There’ll be both unique opportunities for higher flyers and avgeeks, such as internationally-configured widebodies on short haul routes, and good deals and convenient flights for leisure travelers. If you want a preview of what’s to come, consider some of the temporary service that United announced for this winter:
This announcement caught a number of people off-guard — none of these flights originate out of United’s hubs, which is uncommon to see from a legacy carrier — and the graphic above looks more like an LCC’s route map. That said, this expansion allows United to better serve the existing demand, and its competitors are sure to follow it.
19. Boeing will have a resurgent year, Airbus will have the better year, but both will face frustrating setbacks.
Boeing’s much maligned 737 MAX aircraft will be returning to the skies this year in full force following its grounding and subsequent recertification(s) by authorities in the United States, Europe, and China. That’s a reassuring conclusion for this headache, and Ryanair’s recent order of 75 new MAXs is a huge vote of confidence for the beleaguered brand. The next generation of 777s are also gearing up to enter commercial service in 2022, and Boeing is going to garner a lot of positive press and momentum in 2021 on these fronts… Although any bit of good news is going to be met with questions regarding the planes’ reliability and safety records.
Airbus is starting the year in a better place compared to its rival across the pond, and it too will have an impressive share of victories. Its narrowbody and hyper-efficient A321XLR represents the the next frontier for long haul operations, and it will be perfectly suited to cater to the inevitable-but-gradual return of international travel. Meanwhile, the joint Airbus-Bombardier A220 has supplanted Embraer’s E-175 as the darling regional jet. Expect lots of future orders as demand ticks back up. But, as these new developments take flight, the industry will be saying farewell — on an accelerated timeline no less — to Airbus’s once-crown jewel: the A380. Beyond a few niche scenarios, the pandemic instantly killed any mainstream need for a super jumbo, and airlines have been quick to retire them. Just look at the state of this Airbus A380…
…Sadly these images will be far too common in 2021.
20. Emotional support animals will still be able to fly in the United States in 2021…
…But there’ll be a lot less of them! The U.S. Department of Transportation recently declared that ESAs are no longer considered service animals and, as a result, airlines are no longer obligated to accommodate them. There’ll still be service dogs — which is good — but comfort turkeys and peacocks and mini-ponies, as well as fraudulent ESAs, will definitely be things of the past. The three major legacy airlines — American, Delta, and United — plus Alaska have already introduced restrictions and, going forward, they will only permit certified/trained dogs (including those that provide psychiatric assistance for what THAT is worth). It’s only a matter of time before the rest follow suit…
21. Things are going to get unpredictably weird.
Through their marketing and outreach efforts, corporations in the travel industry and beyond have characterized 2020 as “unprecedented” to the point of cliché. As annoying as it may be to admit, they are on to something, and 2021 is certainly going to be equally weird (at least compared to pre-pandemic times), if not weirder. There’s just so much that we don’t know right now, and because we’re currently flying blind so to speak, there are going to be surprises both good and bad. Buckle up, hang in there, and be responsible — better times are coming — and stay tuned to The Higher Flyer for updates. Future editions of “The Daily Flyer” will dutifully report on the stories that matter the most to higher flyers and assess their implications in the weeks and months to come!
Hotels make up a significant part of the higher flyer experience — after flying all over, where are you going to sleep? — but aside from a dig at Bonvoy, none of the predictions reflect their importance. So, as a humble attempt to remedy this…
Bonus: Hilton will be the must-watch chain in 2021.
Of the four major hotel families — Hilton, Hyatt, Intercontinental Hotel Group, Marriott — Hilton will have the best year from the higher flyer’s perspective. 2021 is going to be exciting simply because the world will be reopening, but there’s not going to be a lot of gobsmacking innovation in terms of passenger/guest experiences; the coming months will primarily be restorative until things go back to how they were pre-pandemic. Hilton though, to its credit, is still charging ahead with an ambitious plan of luxury hotel openings. Is that the right move? Well, it’s bold given the current state of affairs and (cliché alert!) only time will tell. These are enticing prospects for higher flyers for sure in the interim, and when you compare this with what Hyatt is doing right now, credit is due to Hilton.
…Not that there’s anything wrong with playing it safe and building dozens of Hyatt Places throughout the strip malls across the country!
Is my second set of predictions crazy? Half-baked? Confounding? Let me know what you think either in the comments or by emailing me at Paul@TheHigherFlyer.org!
If you missed it, click here to read Part 1 of “21 higher flyer predictions for ‘21!”
From The Higher Flyer
The Higher Flyer is an airline-centric travel blog and not a politics blog. Beyond a pair of brief photo-centric posts and a few relevant remarks here and there, THF is not going to comment on the DC riots that were staged as a means to overturn the results of a free and fair election. What happened Wednesday afternoon was first unnerving, then terrifying, and then deeply shameful; it’s appalling moreover that the sitting President of the United States incited and encouraged such acts of sedition. This horror will remain a black eye on our democracy for years to come. This isn’t so much a political issue as it is a matter of right and wrong. I write in one of the posts “a pox on those who desecrate our democratic institutions!”
Other developments, discussions, and articles in higher flying
1. Make Higher Flying Great Again? Eh, not quite…
A good number of the seditionists who descended on Washington, DC to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election came to town last week by plane. As you would expect from a crowd of people who stormed the nation’s pre-eminent symbol of democracy in order to trash — both metaphorically and literally — everything that the institution represents, many of the individuals did not make for very good passengers. Here are a couple of lowlights from the flights in to the capital…
“Trump Supporter Kicked Off Flight For Mask Joke?” No, Not Quite…” from One Mile At A Time
“Senator Mitt Romney Is Heckled While Traveling to D.C.” from The New York Times
…And here’s how various players throughout the industry responded after the damage was done:
Association of Flight Attendants: Please keep us safe from political violence! (ed. note: the fact that this had to be said is a damning indictment of what happened.
“FAA Takes A Stand Against Unruly Passengers After Crew Raise Concerns” from Simple Flying
“American Airlines Capitan Shuts Down Onboard MAGA Rally” from Live and Let’s Fly
Yikes. I won’t comment any further on this matter, but I wish I could say that this behavior is surprising. Shame on those who think this is acceptable, and, to reiterate: the election is over. Enough is enough; democracy has spoken!
2. “It’s 2021, And We Still Don’t Know How We’ll Earn Elite Status With Marriott, Delta, Or Southwest This Year”
Most status-awarding companies in the travel industry have already lessened their qualification requirements for 2021 — just look at the twelfth prediction above! — but there are a few major players that have yet to announce any adjustments. Does this mean that they’re going to be carrying on business as usual? The sage of higher flying, Gary Leff, explains the status quo, assesses the key factors in decision making, and muses about programs’ next steps on View From The Wing. If you’ve been eagerly awaiting an update from Marriott, Delta, or Southwest, his post is well worth a read.
3. How to get a COVID-19 PCR test ASAP
Unless it’s for an essential reason, you probably shouldn’t be traveling internationally right now, and if you are, you’re probably required to present a negative COVID-19 test at your destination. If you’re unsure of how to get one in the United States — it can be a complicated and bureaucratic process — Victoria M. Walker has you covered. Her guide, published on The Points Guy, is a terrific resource. It’s comprehensive, and it’s filled with clarifying FAQs, reassuring guidance, and “do/don’t” tips (for example: do get tested! Don’t forge test results!). Consider bookmarking it for future use too!
…And that’s it for today. Got any tips? Questions? Comments? Email anything and everything to Paul@TheHigherFlyer.org, or comment below! In the meantime, thanks for reading, fly higher, and see you tomorrow!
Curious about yesterday’s news today? Click here to see past entries of “The Daily Flyer.”