Not since 9/11 have the nation’s airlines faced the watershed moment occurring at the end of the month. Their $50 billion CARE subsidy commitments barring layoffs expire, Congress has not signed on for new aid and Forbes estimates that more than 76,000 employees might be axed.
On the other side of the coin, consumers are being enticed by historically low fares with few restrictions. From MSP, a quick glance at September airfare levels is stunning. Low Cost Carriers such as Frontier, Spirit and Sun Country are offering Las Vegas, San Francisco, Dallas, Atlanta, Orlando or Los Angeles for less than $100 roundtrip. The major carriers (with fewer restrictions) are $60-100 more. I mean, when you can change Hotwire bookings with a few easy clicks, that is my definition of a buyer’s market. And like the last time we connected, our popular Airline Airfare Safety Scorecard (see graphic) will help you make the best possible shopping decisions.
Since our June update, major airlines have been hoarding cash like that long lost uncle living in a cabin-in-the-woods. United nearly doubled their cash reserves to 13 months of burn while Southwest maintained a solid debt position and piled up almost 17 months of cash burn. Delta and Spirit hold reserves that ensure that your airfare purchase would be secure, as far forward as a year. On the other hand, American remains in a precarious financial position with 6 months of burn left and a dangerous balance sheet. I recommend avoiding American but if you must, purchase with a credit card to add a layer of security should the carrier face insolvency. Privately-held Sun Country is not required to disclose their cash or debt positions, but surprised many with an $8 million pre-tax profit in the second quarter.
I mentioned liberal air fare change policies. Of the six prominent MSP carriers, only Sun Country is charging change fees for near term travel purchases: zero if you change 60 days ahead or more, and $50 or $100 per segment as you get closer to departure. Southwest is known for and has never charged change fees. Spirit would love to charge change fees but to be competitive, has simply posted a note stating that due to the pandemic, they are waiving change and cancellation fees.
On August 30th, United Airlines announced a major strategic move, eliminating the $200 change fee permanently on standard economy and premium class tickets. Within hours, Delta and American Airlines followed suit. You still need to take care when purchasing bargain basement Basic Economy fares after September 30th. Watch their web-sites for the latest news. Like the super cheap fare levels, flexibility abounds for those willing to venture back into the skies.
I read an interesting article from Arnold Barnett, a professor at MIT. He published research quantifying the odds of catching COVID-19 on a full two hour flight at 1 in 4300. Moreover, he found that those odds shrink to 1 in 7700 when the airline blocks the middle seat. Of the carriers we reviewed, Delta and Southwest continue to offer that very useful benefit. Combine that with their solid financial outlook and they present secure and safe travel purchases. All other carriers in my review are booking to capacity which is a major red flag for my peace of mind.
I don’t know about you, but this research was a useful exercise. I have everything I need to venture into the wild unknown from MSP. I purchased a ticket on Delta and my next stop will be the wide sandy beaches of Hilton Head Island. What about you?