4 Air Travel Trends that Have Disappeared in 2020, and 7 that May Become the Norm

The last nine months have been anything but ordinary, as the global coronavirus pandemic affected practically every aspect of our lives.

However, few things were as affected as the travel industry, which has been all but devastated.

Amid bankruptcies, layoffs, and furloughs, airlines are scrambling to get travelers flying again, and both airlines and airports have had to completely rethink their safety and health regulations to earn passengers' trust and avoid the virus' spread.

Much has changed when it comes to air travel in 2020: some good, some bad, some temporary, some possibly here to stay.

Air travel saw the lowest number of travelers in the last 10 years, making crowded flights a relative rarity.

JFK Airport

Early in the pandemic, air travel was down 96%. 

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

While the number of air travelers has increased slightly since the start of the pandemic, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) saw a 96% decrease in people passing through their checkpoints in April, recording some of the lowest passenger numbers of the past decade.

April 14 set a record low with only 87,534 passengers passing through TSA checkpoints — for comparison, the same day in 2019 saw over 2.2 million.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts that 2020 will see a total of around 1.8 billion air travelers — 60.5% fewer air travelers than in 2019, and about the same number of passengers as in 2003.

While this is good news for climate activists, who have long advocated for a reduction in air travel to slow climate change, it has caused the airline industry to lose half a trillion dollars in revenue, per the IATA. Airlines around the world have cut routes, furloughed workers, and even gone bankrupt.

However, experts believe air travel will rebound.

"I think summer 2021 might be the biggest travel season we've had in decades," Scott Keyes, founder of Scott's Cheap Flights and chief flight expert, told Insider, citing people's desire to make up for lost time.

Middle-seat blocking was the norm, at least for a while.

flying coronavirus

Delta is currently the only airline planning to continue blocking middle seats. 

Joey Hadden/Business Insider

While many flights were operating at low capacity and purposely keeping middle seats empty to help maintain social distance, this will soon be a thing of the past. By January 2021, only Delta will continue blocking middle seats.

Keyes said he's not surprised.

"Seats, the real estate on a plane, are by far the most valuable assets that airlines have. They can't run a profitable business if they're taking one-third of their assets and just blocking them off," he said.

Masks are now required on all flights, and will likely stick around as an accessory.

thanksgiving travel 2020

Masks are probably here to stay. 

David Santiago/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Currently, all domestic airlines require passengers to wear masks. Most, in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), require this of anyone over the age of 2. 

Some experts think masks are likely here to stay, even after COVID-19 vaccines have become widely available.

Dr. Anthony Fauci recently told Jake Tapper on CNN's "State of the Union," that he would "recommend to people not to abandon all public health measures just because you've been vaccinated," suggesting that precautions implemented during the pandemic, such as masks and social distancing, should remain in place.

"I would be surprised if mask requirements have been gotten rid of on all airlines by the end of 2021," Keyes said, citing the fact that it doesn't cost airlines anything, and makes most travelers feel safer.

Amir Eylon, president and CEO of Longwoods International, a travel and tourism market-research consultancy, believes that even if masks are eventually no longer required on flights, people will keep wearing them.

"I think we're looking at a new social courtesy," he told Insider. "If you're traveling and you've got a cold or a cough or something, you're gonna put a mask on. It may not be an airline regulation, but it will probably be a social custom."

Buying plane tickets is more flexible than ever and might stay that way for the near future.

plane ticket flight

Change fees might be gone for good — at least for most fares. 


One silver lining: Change fees might be a thing of the past. Pre-pandemic, the only domestic US airline that didn't charge passengers for changing their flights was Southwest. But now, as airlines realize that planning ahead amid ever-changing travel bans is difficult, most began waiving those pesky fees. While some airlines have waived these fees through next year, others have canceled them indefinitely.

"Airlines had kind of built their business model on not giving flexibility and charging for every little thing. And what they realized was that business is down so much and people are so reluctant to book right now that it's actually costing more to continue to have these change fees," Keyes, said, describing the move as "almost the bare minimum airlines needed to do."

He believes that these flexible fares might stick around for a while but warns of a huge loophole: that the change fees most airlines said they'll get rid of permanently do not apply to basic economy tickets — the cheapest and most prevalent tickets (though he notes that these fees are currently waived temporarily).

He says it's "definitely a step in the right direction," though he'd prefer it if change fees weren't reinstated for basic economy once the pandemic wanes.

Eylon echoes Keyes' thoughts. "I don't think change fees will be gone forever, but I think you'll probably see a greater degree of flexibility than in the past," Eylon told Insider. "I think the airlines that are being most flexible and most proactive in their communication are probably going to be at an advantage to gain more customer loyalty."

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