Airlines forced to court leisure passengers with deals, perks and new destinations

You know them. You may even be one.

They used to fly solo, often toting briefcases instead of daypacks, and filled the front of the plane, taking full advantage of perks like ample upgrades and free cocktails.

Now these same business travelers are showing up with their families as leisure travelers clad in shorts instead of business suits. As vacationers, they are ready to take trips despite concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. 

That’s forcing airlines to treat leisure passengers with more respect simply because there are no longer business travelers – the airfare fat cats – anymore to help fill planes.

When it comes to a recovery in the airline industry, “we’ve said from the beginning that leisure was going to lead the way, mainly because businesses are still really trying to figure out what it’s going to look like when things normalize,” Paul Jacobson, Delta Air Lines’ chief financial officer, told analysts on an investment firm conference call last month.

To hook more back-of-the-plane passengers, airlines are adding more domestic Sunbelt cities and Mexico and Caribbean routes, offering deep fare discounts, rejiggering incentives and relaxing booking rules.

No-change fees woo wary vacationers

The latest proof that airlines are serious about wooing leisure travelers came in August when United, American, Delta, Alaska and Hawaiian airlines banished change fees on all but the cheapest no-frills tickets, a move that pressures Southwest Airlines, which hasn’t had them.

Business travelers were more likely to book costly unrestricted tickets that allowed them to switch travel dates without penalty. Leisure travelers were locked in, knowing a $200 change fee could be more than the price of their ticket.

“One of the biggest impediments to leisure travel is the change fee,” said Peter Greenberg, host of the “Eye on Travel” radio show.

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