Is it safe to book a flight this fall? Andy Fine wants to know, and he has every reason to be worried. Under the terms of the federal airline bailout, airlines may start laying off staff or cutting pay Oct. 1.

Fine and others are concerned that their flights might not exist after that date.

Christopher Elliott, the Travel Troubleshooter ...
Christopher Elliott, the Travel Troubleshooter 

Fine, a retired financial services manager from Concord, is loyal to United Airlines. But United recently ended its contract with regional carrier ExpressJet, which could put that carrier out of business. United also says it may cut up to 45 percent of its workforce after Oct. 1.

“I realize that cutting back staff by half doesn’t necessarily mean that half their flights will be canceled,” says Fine, who is making travel plans for later this year. “But prices seem better than usual now. Should I find a ticket on another airline?”

Oct. 1 is a day of reckoning for airlines

As of Oct. 1, airlines will be free to start downsizing. American and Delta are also reportedly planning layoffs this year, as are smaller carriers like Alaska Airlines and JetBlue. Only Southwest Airlines has said it doesn’t expect any layoffs or furloughs through the end of the year.

Air travel this fall may cost less, but it could be risky to book this far in advance, industry observers say. The busy holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s — loom large, with lots of potential for disruption. The best way to avoid it is through careful planning now.

“Travel later in the year will certainly be an adventure for passengers and airlines alike,” says Dean Headley, an emeritus professor of marketing at Wichita State University and co-author of the Airline Quality Rating. “Booking now carries a clear risk of having your flight not being operated when the time comes to travel as airlines downsize.”

Booking a flight after Oct. 1 has its risks — and rewards. Eugene Levin is considering a flight this fall. He thinks fares will be low, and that’s not just a hunch. As the chief strategic officer at SEMrush, a web analytics company, he has seen online searches for airfares plummet an astonishing 45  percent since the start of the pandemic. “This is going to be a buyer’s market,” he says.

The risks are obvious, and they’re not just tied to the health of the airline. They’re tied to your health. Projections suggest that coronavirus cases will spike in the fall, says Onyema Ogbuagu, a Yale Medicine infectious-disease doctor and associate professor.

“I’m wary of booking any flights to travel in October or until the end of the year,” Ogbuagu says.

A chaotic holiday season?

But what happens when you have a ticket for, say Thanksgiving, and your airline decides to cancel the flight?

Things could turn chaotic quickly. An airline that’s aggressively downsizing over the holidays could unleash hundreds of thousands of displaced air travelers on the other airlines, wreaking havoc the likes of which we haven’t seen. What’s more, airlines have done their best to avoid paying out refunds for canceled flights, despite being required to do so by federal law. It’s not a question of whether this scenario will unfold, but of how catastrophic it will be.

The best way to deal with it is to avoid it. Flying during the holidays is pure folly, particularly this year. But if you go, you’ll want to review your itinerary carefully to make sure it’s cancellation-proof, experts say.

Erik Shor, a vice president at Travel and Transport, a corporate travel agency, says you should check the desired flight to see whether it’s operating between now and your travel date.

“In the covid environment, airlines are adding flights back to schedules slowly and based on firm demand,” he explains. “If a flight is scheduled to return to operation in October and demand is weak, it could very well be pulled from the schedule several weeks out.”

For flights operating regularly in the months leading up to your departure date, you’re probably okay. But if they cancel, you should ask for an immediate refund.

Should you cancel your fall flight?

If it isn’t safe to book a flight this fall, should you cancel? No, say industry watchers like Shane Chapman, the senior vice president of airline industry relations for Ovation Travel Group. He says airlines have already reduced their schedules to meet the reduced demand.

“Passengers booking for October and beyond shouldn’t see a huge reduction in flights as the airlines are currently operating a much smaller fleet than in the past,” Chapman says. But later in the year, he expects some schedule adjustments, as the airlines try to figure out when and where to increase or decrease service.

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