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Coronavirus and Booking Travel: Considering the Risk

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Travel and travel planning are being disrupted by the worldwide spread of the coronavirus. For the latest updates, read The New York Times’s Covid-19 coverage here.

On March 12, the day after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic, Sery Kim, a lawyer in Coppell, Texas, noticed that the number of American Airlines AAdvantage miles needed to book a May flight to Barbados she had been eyeing dropped from 130,000 to 30,000 — a decrease of nearly 77 percent.

Thus set off a four-day hunt for future trips. In addition to Barbados, Ms. Kim purchased six round-trip Southwest Airlines tickets, starting later in March, to Washington, D.C., where she keeps an apartment for work. She paid $99 apiece for flights that normally cost upward of $183, with dates extending into September. She spent $93 on a late-April flight to Miami that usually costs around $330. Then she booked a safari vacation in July for about $900 round trip to Cape Town — about half what she paid for a South Africa flight in 2016.

Ms. Kim, 41, was indulging in what might be called flight arbitrage. Inexpensive airfare deals abound currently; couple those with newly relaxed airline change and cancellation policies and some travelers are seeing little-to-no risk in pointing, clicking and purchasing. They are betting that things will have improved enough to travel, and if they haven’t, they can roll their money forward into an even later trip.

“There’s an arbitrage opportunity that has never really existed in modern air travel,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, an online alert service with more than two million members. “Not only are fares super low, but to be able to cancel if you decide not to take the trip is rare. And there are absolutely people taking advantage of it — not in a pejorative sense, but literally by booking flights for when hopefully, fingers crossed, things are safer.”

To proceed cautiously amid travel advisories and border closures, Scott’s Cheap Flights is only promoting deals from July onward, and only for airlines waiving change and cancellation fees.

After her April tour through Japan was canceled, with all of her payments successfully recouped, Karen Burrows, a 56-year-old health care worker, used Scott’s Cheap Flights to purchase a $282 round-trip flight from New York City to Athens, Greece, departing in September.

“It’s a comfort — a consolation prize — and a way to look forward to something else after the disappointment of Japan,” said Ms. Burrows, who lives in Feura Bush, N.Y.I’ll probably wait until August, and if it’s not looking like things are going to be healthy, I’ll make changes with the airline. I wouldn’t make any nonrefundable accommodations at this point, either.”

September prices for Athens flights from New York City often cost upward of $1,000. But Ms. Burrows has another reference point: Two years ago, she paid $446 for a flight to Athens from Newark, N.J. — another Scott’s Cheap Flights find.

“The comparison of real prices today versus reference prices that consumers have in their memories — ones they may even be unaware that they hold — is leading to this kind of purchase behavior,” said Priya Raghubir, a New York University Stern School of Business professor who studies consumer psychology and spending.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Rina Baraz Nehdar, the editor in chief of the website L.A. Family Travel, had been watching round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Rome; August fares hovered around $900 apiece. In early March, she found $400 flights on Ovago, an online travel agency.

“Our trip isn’t scheduled until August so I pray we still get to go, and if so, I’m stoked about our great bargain. Since we can only travel during the time school is out, we typically have to pay premium prices. This was a nice relief for us,” said Ms. Baraz Nehdar, 45.

Cheap summer flights like the ones Ms. Baraz Nehdar found are expressly attributable to the coronavirus, said Mr. Keyes, of Scott’s Cheap Flights. Even though air travel has become generally less expensive in the last 40 years, summer has remained a much-sought-after — and therefore pricey — time to fly.

And with airlines poised to burn through $61 billion of their cash reserves during the second quarter of this year, according to a recent analysis by the International Air Transport Association, having customers on the books — even if they eventually cancel — is a strategic move.

“Selling cheaper tickets for future travel is a good way for airlines to generate sales activity and also start restoring consumer confidence for future travel, which gets shaken badly in events like this,” said Khalid Usman, senior vice president at Oliver Wyman, a management consulting firm.

Although inexpensive airfare affects yield — the average fare per passenger per mile — it also helps drum up demand. According to new data from Hopper, a travel-booking app that analyzes and predicts flight prices, round-trip domestic airfare is down about 41 percent from last year and 44 percent from 2018.

Hayley Berg, Hopper’s economist, has seen demand shift to the latter half of the year; demand for international travel doesn’t pick up again until August. Skyscanner, a travel-deals website and app, saw a slight uptick in flight bookings in the last week of March (compared to earlier in the month) for departures in August, September and October.

But hopeful travelers looking to take advantage of what is effectively a buyers’ market should still know what they’re getting into.

“While governments around the world are planning to provide support to airlines financially, some element of financial risk for travelers remains, such as airlines canceling flights or, in the worst case scenario, airlines going out of business,” Mr. Usman said.

According to a policy that was reiterated by the Department of Transportation in early April, passengers are entitled to cash refunds if their flight is canceled (or substantially changed) for reasons relating to the coronavirus. Facing travel advisories and decreased demand, many airlines have already significantly reduced their service.

But passengers who voluntarily cancel may have little choice but to accept a voucher, which might not cover the cost of a more expensive ticket down the line and often expires 12 months after the original booking date.

That’s why some experienced travelers, like Nelson Yuan, a Hong Kong–based investment strategist who flew around 300,000 miles last year for business, haven’t gone beyond window-shopping.

“Cash is fungible. At this point, many airlines are effectively not giving refunds despite their stated policies; they’re short on cash so they’re pushing credits,” said Mr. Yuan, 37. “In that case you’re basically giving them a short-term loan.”

Ms. Kim was forced to cancel her Miami trip (without penalty) because the hotel she had hoped to book is closed. But despite the widespread stay-at-home orders and quarantine-on-arrival advisories, including in Barbados and South Africa, she remains undeterred about her other plans.

“Unless the airlines cancel the flights, I’m planning on going,” she said.

Sarah Firshein is a Brooklyn-based travel writer. If you need advice about a best-laid travel plan that went awry, send an email to travel@nytimes.comSarah is also our Tripped Up columnist.


Follow NY Times Travel on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Get weekly updates from our Travel Dispatch newsletter, with tips on traveling smarter, destination coverage and photos from all over the world.



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Residents from Iowa, Wisconsin, traveling to Illinois for COVID-19 tests local health officials say

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WHITESIDE COUNTY, Ill. (WTVO) — Within the last 24 hours, over 72,000 people in Illinois have taken a COVID-19 test. We visited a testing site where health professionals are trying to keep up with the increasing demand.

“Yesterday we saw about 264 come through, as of right now we’re about 200 we’ve seen come to the testing site,” said Cheryl Lee of the Whiteside County Health Department.

As growing concerns over the increase in positive tests continue, the Whiteside County Community Health Clinic made it a top priority to host a testing site.

“Our numbers are not looking good and just to offer additional testing to look at our positivity, see the community spread and really try to catch those who are positive early,” Lee added.

Participants follow a strict, but easy protocol to take the test.

“First the participants pick up a form. On that form, they fill out their basic information including date of birth and their telephone number we’re going to call for their results and on the bottom of the form they’re going to sign the consent and date it,” said Phlebotomist Anita Wallin.

Health experts say that many Americans have been traveling outside of their state in order to get tested for the virus.

“We have noticed personally that we get a lot of participants from the state of Wisconsin and the state of Iowa because unfortunately, they don’t have these services available there as we do in Illinois,” Wallin added.

Healthcare professionals encourage those to continue being cautious.

“Really the important thing is to stay home when you’re sick, wash your hands and mask, everything we’ve told everybody about but it’s those private gatherings when were comfortable with people that we’re taking it back out in the community and that’s what we’re seeing,” Lee added.

If you have questions regarding your test results, you are encouraged to call the telephone number at the bottom of the consent form to be connected to the state health department.

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Breeze Airways could prove well positioned when air travel recovers

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As US start-up Breeze Airways quietly hones its route network plan, the ultra low-cost carrier is factoring in the anticipated pent up demand of younger leisure travelers who may play a pivotal role in leading industry recovery.

“Younger people are, of course, statistically less vulnerable to COVID-19 but are also generally more curious and adventurous. They’re willing to try new brands and seek new experiences. So, we definitely take that into consideration as we pick routes,” Breeze founder and CEO David Neeleman told Runway Girl Network.

“Breeze is focused on leisure travelers as our core, so we’ll make sure we include adventure travel destinations in the mix. And our fares will be affordable to all ages and budgets.”

The ULCC will offer point-to-point flights from smaller secondary airports, bypassing hubs for shorter travel times. Its stated mission is to “make the world of travel simple, affordable and convenient while seeking to improve the guest travel experience using technology, ingenuity and kindness.”

That’s the type of commitment that could speak to Millennials and Gen Z, in particular. Not only are these diverse, progressive younger travelers more likely than others to fly domestically in the next six months (84% vs. 79%), they are also slightly less likely to adjust their travel plans and behavior in light of the virus (66% vs. 70%), according to a new report from OAG.

“Most consumers, especially younger travelers, are prepared to fly under the right circumstances – and the industry must play its part in creating the right conditions,” suggested OAG chief analyst John Grant.

Price sensitivity is very real, however. Even if there is a will to travel, financial challenges might prove a barrier. Two thirds of the passengers surveyed by the International Air Transport Association say they will postpone travel until their personal financial situation stabilizes.

Rotation

Millennials and Gen Z will clearly not carry the entirety of recovery on their shoulders. But they’ll aid recovery “to some degree” given that they “are more intrepid than older travelers”, noted Breeze’s Neeleman.

Inflight connectivity and entertainment provider Global Eagle, which counts low-cost carriers Southwest Airlines and Norwegian among its customers, has observed a general shift in focus from business travelers to affluent leisure and VFR (visiting friends and relatives) travelers amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Speaking broadly about this transition, Global Eagle president Per Norén told Runway Girl Network: “Many professionals that used to be loyal, high-spending elite passengers, like consultants, investment bankers and lawyers, shifted to videoconferencing. We think some of this high-spend corporate traffic will recover in time, but videoconferencing workflows are well established now especially for professional services. In addition, companies have tightened travel and entertainment budgets. So it’s hard to see discretionary business travel coming back quickly, even with a COVID vaccine.”

He continued, “On the other hand, we see real opportunity and recovery in leisure traffic. The line between work and vacation has blurred, and if you have broadband, you can work from anywhere. In addition when we spend less on commuting to the office and work-related expenses, we have more to spend on vacations or simply a change in scenery. So we are bullish that leisure travel will continue to rebound, especially once a COVID vaccine allows governments to lift travel restrictions. Taken together, we do see a recovery coming for the aviation sector.

It’s not about millennials vs. Generation X vs. baby boomers. It’s more about the shift away from corporate traffic and blind loyalty to frequent flyer programs, to leisure travel where non-stop flights and passenger experiences matter. This is reflected in the conversations that I have with airlines around the globe, and this is why we see many premium and low-cost airlines considering how to invest cost-effectively in passenger experience and non-stop flights to attract that affluent leisure market. They can’t just depend on frequent flyers chasing elite status anymore.

Salt Lake City-headquartered Breeze stands at the ready to capture business from the leisure traveler demographic when it launches operations, now expected in 2021. Neeleman has been quoted as saying that Breeze will fly non-stop “between places currently without meaningful or affordable service”. The carrier will have different fare classes, including a basic economy product as baseline. In sync with its ULCC model, it will generate ancillary revenue by enabling passengers to pay for a variety of add-ons.

Breeze will operate a mixed fleet of brand-new Airbus 220-300 aircraft – of which it has 60 on order with deliveries beginning in August 2021 – and Embraer 190/195 aircraft on lease from Nordic Aviation Capital as well as Azul Airlines, the Brazilian operator also founded by Neeleman.

The A220’s flexibility, in particular, will enable Breeze to offer a more premium product up front if demand warrants it. “The configuration on the A220 is flexible. We can do 145 coach seats with extra legroom in the front or take out seats before the exit and put in 36 first class seats if we want to,” Neeleman told RGN in February of this year.

COVID-19 was named a pandemic shortly after that interview. And so, RGN this month asked Neeleman if Breeze has made any tweaks to its plan for the A220 layout. In short, is it still eyeing the ability to quick-swap first class seats on the A220, or does it expect an all-economy cabin will make more sense in the near term, given industry’s gradual recovery?

“We’re still all about flexibility, that’s the key to Breeze’s model,” responded Neeleman on 15 October. “We are in a really enviable position to be able to gauge trends and meet demand really nimbly. So, we’ll change up the cabin configuration to meet that demand, whatever it is at the time, and don’t want to let anything limit that.”

While Breeze intends to offer inflight connectivity and wireless entertainment to passengers, the finer details of its PaxEx plan have not yet been revealed. “We’ve made some key decisions and selections but are still fine-tuning others. So, it’s still a little too early to say,” he said.

In late August, the company raised $83 million in Series A financing, led by Peterson Partners with Sandlot Partners. The Series A investment brings Breeze’s total funding since launch to more than $100 million. “Proceeds will allow Breeze to continue assembling a world class team, build a first class tech-enabled guest experience, and prepare to launch flight operations in underserved secondary markets in 2021,” said the company in a statement. Its entry to the market with low fares and non-stop service could prove well timed, especially if a vaccine arrives in the near-term.

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Pence will keep traveling after exposure to infected aide; daily cases in US top 83,700 again | National News

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Vice President Mike Pence plans to maintain an aggressive campaign schedule this week despite his exposure to a top aide who tested positive for the coronavirus, the White House said Saturday.

Pence himself tested negative, his office said. Under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria, the vice president is considered a “close contact” of his chief of staff, Marc Short, but will not quarantine, said spokesman Devin O’Malley.

O’Malley said Pence decided to maintain his travel schedule “in consultation with the White House Medical Unit” and “in accordance with the CDC guidelines for essential personnel.” Those guidelines require that essential workers exposed to someone with the coronavirus closely monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 and wear a mask whenever around other people.

Here’s an update on all developments. Scroll or swipe further for in-depth coverage.

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