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Economy

Welcoming Leisure Travel, Airlines Inch Back Toward Profitability

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Say you want to fly nonstop between Appleton, Wis., and Savannah, Ga. You will be in luck very soon. Or how about between Austin and Nashville or Louisville and LA? These are some of the new routes airlines are offering as they try to capitalize on the huge pent-up demand for leisure travel and try to inch back towards profitability. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: For the bigger airlines, American, Delta and United, the business traveler was the holy grail, road warriors who'd fly tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of miles a year, often booking at the last minute and paying higher fares. But for the most part, they're not back to flying yet. Those who are flying now are more likely to be like Gabe Holmes, who, while checking in with his family at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, seems almost giddy to be traveling again.

GABE HOLMES: Yeah, heading to Florida. We're very excited. Absolute - looking forward to it (laughter).

SCHAPER: The 43-year-old from Grand Rapids, Mich., says the pandemic has been a real struggle. But now that he's vaccinated...

HOLMES: I've been itching to get out. Like, I've been cooped up, work, home. So, yeah, I'm definitely looking forward to it.

SCHAPER: Humberto Rodriguez of Chicago is also eager to fly again.

HUMBERTO RODRIGUEZ: I'm heading to Orlando. I'm going to take my kids to Disney and stuff like that and then do some sightseeing, you know? It's been a year, so it's time to, you know, take a vacation. Due to COVID, you know, we can't really do nothing during the year. So it'll be a good chance to go now and enjoy ourselves.

SCHAPER: The TSA says on Sunday, more than 1.6 million people passed through airport security checkpoints. That's the most air travelers since the pandemic began. And airlines are rushing to add more flights to vacation destinations to accommodate the surge. And they're not just resuming service to the same cities they flew to before the pandemic.

WILL LIVSEY: The book has been rewritten since COVID.

SCHAPER: Will Livsey is a data analyst with the aviation analytics company Cirium.

LIVSEY: We have history on how things were done for many, many years. But now you throw in a pandemic, and you're literally rewriting the book. Airlines are trying new things, new experiments, if you will, of putting planes where they think they're going to make the most amount of money.

SCHAPER: Some examples - Allegiant Air is starting nonstop service from Des Moines, Iowa, to Houston, San Diego and Portland, Ore. JetBlue will start flying from Boston to Asheville, N.C., Kansas City and Milwaukee. Spirit is going into new airports, too, including Milwaukee and Louisville, Ky., with flights from both to Orlando, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. And Will Livsey says all of the airlines are beefing up service to airports near national parks, especially out West.

LIVSEY: The Montanas, the Dakotas of the world - yeah, who would've seen that coming?

MELANIE LIEBERMAN: The airlines have been really nimble. And we've seen them respond pretty quickly to the types of routes and the types of trips that travelers are demanding.

SCHAPER: Melanie Lieberman is senior travel editor at The Points Guy travel website.

LIEBERMAN: So with the decrease in business travel and even the lag in people returning to cities, we've seen the airlines double down on these gateways to national and state parks, destinations that offer a lot more outdoor recreation. And so I think that's a real indication of what people want right now and the airlines looking to respond to that very quickly.

SCHAPER: After losing billions last year, the airlines are hoping their moves into smaller secondary markets and serving national parks will help them claw their way back to profitability while they wait for the more lucrative business and international travelers to return. And to that end, those rock-bottom fares they offered last year when no one was flying - they're starting to disappear as flights to domestic destinations fill up fast.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF CODES IN THE CLOUDS' "A DIFFERENT TAKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.