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Will ‘revenge travel’ urge overpower rising costs of spring/summer getaways?

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A Delta Air Lines plane takes off as passengers arrive and leave the Salt Lake City International Airport.

A Delta Air Lines plane takes off as passengers arrive and leave the Salt Lake City International Airport on Sept. 15, 2021.

Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Record-high fuel prices, should they continue, are set to take a bite out of spring and summer travel budgets this year. But will two years’ worth of pent-up demand under COVID-19 restrictions roll over the unexpected new expenses?

Industry experts seem to think so and new data reflects U.S. travel volumes may finally be returning to pre-pandemic levels.

While the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic brought travel to a near standstill virtually overnight, demand came back last year as restrictions eased. By June 2021, domestic flight bookings were only 5% below the comparable period in 2019, according to a new report from Adobe Digital Insights, but the sudden rise of new coronavirus variants derailed the recovery. Coming into 2022, however, consumers have turned a corner, analysts found.

“The Adobe Digital Economy Index has been monitoring the airline recovery on a weekly basis, and in the second week of February 2022, we saw domestic bookings and revenue surpass 2019 levels for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic,” according to Vivek Pandya, lead analyst for Adobe Digital Insights. “This is a major turning point, and it shows a level of consumer confidence we’ve not seen in many months.”

In a Deseret News interview, Wells Fargo managing director and senior economist Mark Vitner said consumer travel demand appears likely to trump any hesitation wrought by higher prices, whether at the gas pump or the cost of airline tickets, when it comes to the 2022 travel season.

“There are a lot of different ways to look at it, but the whole concept of ‘revenge travel’ has some merits to it,” Vitner said. “People have been putting off travel for two years and are looking to get out ... and I don’t think higher gas prices are going to impede that.”

Vitner said the economics of higher fuel costs are driven by global markets, currently roiled by the impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Unlike the high prices and long lines that accompanied the 1970s oil crisis, or the price elevations that followed Gulf Coast hurricane disruptions, fuel shortages will not be an issue for road travelers or airline operators in the coming travel season.

Vitner believes higher fuel prices appear likely to persist, at least through the start of the 2022 travel season, but other factors amid receding pandemic conditions will continue to drive the highest travel volumes since before COVID-19 exploded in 2019. Widespread migrations back to the office, the return of big, in-person meetings and conventions and record-high levels of personal savings will help fuel a resurgence of both business and recreational travel in the coming months, he said.

While gas and jet fuel prices in the U.S. have receded a bit from all-time record highs set just a week ago, airline ticket prices are on the rise.

Data tracking by the Airlines Reporting Corp. indicates the average ticket price for a U.S. domestic roundtrip ticket was $464 in February, up from $409 in January and $346 in February 2021.

At a meeting earlier this week, executives from the major U.S. air carriers waxed bullish on their companies’ earnings prospects in the coming months, and were confident that passing on the added fuel costs to customers would not hinder surging demand.

Delta Air Lines President Glen Hauenstein said the carrier needs to collect an extra $30 or $40 per the average $400 round trip ticket to cover its rising fuel costs and so far is having no trouble doing so given a surge in bookings, according to a report by USA Today.

“We are very, very confident of our ability to recapture over 100% of the fuel price run-up in the second quarter and through probably the end of the summer,” Hauenstein said at the J.P. Morgan Industrials Conference on Tuesday.

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said ”demand is higher than it’s ever been” for domestic travel and that overall bookings are “incredibly strong.” And, per USA Today, United Airlines Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Nocella called the spike in demand unprecedented.

“The pandemic really does seem to be behind us here in the U.S.,” Nocella said. “Bookings across most of the network are at normal levels.’’

So, what are the favorite destinations for long-delayed travelers finally getting back on planes? According to adobe, these are the U.S cities seeing the biggest lift in arrival activity for those traveling from March through May this year:

  1. Belgrade, Montana (home to Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport).
  2. Fort Myers, Florida.
  3. Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
  4. Palm Springs, California.
  5. Kahului, Hawaii.
  6. Orlando, Florida.
  7. Tampa, Florida.
  8. Lihue, Hawaii.
  9. Pensacola, Florida.
  10. Honolulu, Hawaii.