How the Airline Industry Is Improving This Year — and What That Means for Your Next Flight

Airlines just endured the worst year on record. Now they’re turning to the future with new jets, new routes, and new competition.

Low angle view of a Southwest Airlines-branded Boeing jet
Southwest Airlines has a growing fleet of brand-new Boeing 737 Max jets. Photo: Courtesy of Southwest Airlines

One day in April 2020, just 87,500 passengers passed through TSA checkpoints across America, a jaw-dropping low that represented a roughly 95 percent dip from 2019. By this spring, air travel had bounced much of the way back: TSA screeners were checking more than 1.5 million people a day in April 2021, with the trend line pointing sharply upward.

That lift hints at a bright future for flying in the U.S. and beyond. Here's a closer look at what's in store.

Enjoying New Planes

Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, and Southwest Airlines are all flying two new aircraft types, the Airbus A220 and Boeing 737 Max; United Airlines has the Max, too. (The Boeing jets are flying again after a nearly two-year safety review by the FAA.) Both models are more fuel-efficient than older jets, making it economically feasible for carriers to open up new routes that would otherwise go unserved. The onboard experience has also improved: these planes have larger overhead bins and better entertainment systems, and they deliver smoother rides.

Flying for Fun

New jets aren't the only thing prompting airlines to take another look at route networks. Because we're taking fewer business trips, American Airlines has added flights to vacation destinations like Orlando from cities including Birmingham, Alabama; Dayton, Ohio; and Indianapolis. American has also increased service to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Kalispell, Montana — both gateways to national parks.

United, meanwhile, launched 26 new domestic routes, linking many Midwestern cities, including Milwaukee and Columbus, Ohio, to coastal escapes such as Hilton Head, South Carolina, and Portland, Maine. JetBlue announced expanded service from its Boston and New York hubs to locations including Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; San Antonio, Texas; and, in 2022, Vancouver.

Going Farther

Qatar Airways was one international airline that actually broadened its footprint in the U.S. during the pandemic, adding new flights between Doha and both Seattle and San Francisco. The airline also forged a partnership with Alaska Airlines: customers can now make a seamless single booking that starts with an Alaska flight and connects to an international trip operated by Qatar.

JetBlue has announced its first-ever transatlantic flights, with service to London Heathrow from both Boston and New York. The airline will have 24 brand-new Mint business-class suites aboard the Airbus A321LR jets on that route. (Seats in the first row, known as Mint Studios, give passengers even more space.)

Two carriers are betting on an uptick in "diaspora travel," where people in the U.S. travel specifically because of family or ancestral connections. Last fall, United launched nonstops from Washington, D.C., to both Accra, Ghana, and Lagos, Nigeria. American will link Miami and Paramaribo, Suriname, this summer, and its flights between Seattle and Bangalore, India, are slated to start in the second half of 2021.

Taking on the Competition

The pandemic saw the end of some struggling low-cost carriers, including Norwegian and Wow Air, but newcomers are ready to take on the biggies. Avelo Airlines debuted in April with flights from Burbank, California, to various cities in the western U.S. "Honestly, there could not be a better time for us to launch," says Andrew Levy, the airline's founder, chairman, and CEO.

He promises that Avelo's flights to smaller airports within major markets will be cheaper than those offered by legacy carriers. Breeze Airways, from JetBlue founder David Neeleman, is also coming soon, with a similar bang-for-your-buck model.

New low-cost airlines are taking off in Europe, too. Italy-based Ego Airways launched in March with flights serving 11 cities, including Bari, Catania, and Florence. And this summer, the Norwegian upstart Flyr plans to expand from its home country with flights to Spain and France.

A version of this story first appeared in the July 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Soaring Higher.

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