Are travelers starting to fly again? Spirit, JetBlue say yes, with an asterisk

Spirit Airlines filled just 17% of its seats in April as government restrictions to thwart the spread of coronavirus kept travelers home.

The outlook for May is much brighter, with the discount airline expecting flights to be 50 to 59% full, prompting it to reinstate more flights for early June.

"In many cases, what we're simply finding is that people are starting to want to move around a little bit,'' Matt Klein, Spirit's chief commercial officer, said on the airline's earnings conference call Thursday.  "They've put off seeing significant others in other states, and as long as they're traveling in a safe way, we're starting to see that (demand) come back a little bit.''

Klein said the situation started to change only very recently, noting that he would have had a different commentary on travel demand if asked a few weeks ago. Bookings have been mostly last-minute, unlike the norms for leisure travel.

But he cautioned that the pickup in travel demand is slight given that Spirit, like other airlines, is operating a bare bones schedule so the increased number of passengers won't be large "in the grand scheme of things.''  Spirit still expects May revenue to be down 90 to 95%  compared with a year ago.

Never flown Spirit?  Here's what it's like

Klein and Spirit CEO Ted Christie says travelers have been wooed by low fares.

"We believe that will be the hallmark of the post-COVID 19 traveler,'' Christie said.

The airline, which charges bargain fares and adds fees for everything else including carry-on bags, seat assignments and soft drinks, sees itself as a leading indicator given its focus on bargain-hunting travelers planning vacations and trips to see family and friends they haven't seen in a while.

“Our expectation is that we will see the recovery earlier than most carriers as people begin to visit their friends and relatives,'' Klein said.

The new normal:  Spirit will require passengers to wear face masks amid pandemic

JetBlue also sees encouraging signs

JetBlue Airways executives said on the airline's earnings conference call Thursday that the industry's recovery will be slow but also noted some early signs that are encouraging.

"We are starting to see some very small improvement in bookings,'' Joanna Geraghty said. "It's too early to tell if it's a permanent change in the trends.''

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Among different regions, JetBlue is seeing a pick up in travel between Florida and the Northeast, she said.

The airline's planes are also starting to be slightly fuller because the number of no-shows has started to decrease, Geraghty said.

JetBlue, which is operating just 100 daily flights versus its normal 1,000, is a largely domestic carrier. Its new service to London has been delayed by the coronavirus crisis.

JetBlue Airways announces flights to London:  5 things to know

Like Spirit, JetBlue expects travelers visiting friends and family to return first, followed by vacationers. Business traveler recovery is further out.

"We expect to see a small increase in demand as various geographies in our network begin a phased reopening,'' she said.

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