We Were Promised a New “Golden Age” of Travel in 2021. What Happened?

Debunking some of the bigger myths that travel media predicted for a distressed industry

December 3, 2021 10:12 am
We Were Promised a New “Golden Age” of Travel in 2021. What Happened?

Earlier this year, experts proclaimed that 2021 would be, for a variety of reasons — the vaccines, chief among them — the next “Golden Age of Travel.” The idea was that, after the better part of a year spent in lockdown, people would be jumping at the bit to get back onto the road and into the friendly skies. Bookings would surge, the industry would recover and we would all be better, more mindful travelers for it.

And that did happen … sort of. But there were also a lot of highly predictable and unsavory outcomes, too. Airfare at a premium, rental car shortages, labor shortages, cancellations and delays, long lines, long wait times, a record number of inflight escalated incidents … In the end, 2021 was not only not the golden age of travel everyone thought it would be, it was kind of a total shitshow.

“We would not be surprised to see the return of the ‘golden age’ of travel in the 2020s,” Morgan Stanley analyst Ravi Shanker told Forbes back in April, comparing the then-circumstances to those of “the Roaring Twenties and Swinging Sixties.”

As a refresher: the Golden Age of Travel is said to have peaked in the mid-1960s. The term often conjures up images of Pan Am aircrafts with gourmet meals (think lobster), free-flowing libations and young, attractive flight attendants. But even then, things weren’t quite as glamorous as the history books would have you believe. As Summer Hull wrote for The Points Guy in 2019, the original “Golden Age of Travel” was also marked by a smattering of fatal plane crashes, gender and racial inequality (those flight attendants were subjected to routine weight checks and prohibited from being married) and the airborne toxic event known as an onboard smoking section. Was it the apex of air travel, relative to the times? Perhaps. By today’s standards? Not even close.

Using a similar lens, it’s pretty easy to debunk a lot of the rosy predictions that were made for travel in 2021. Let’s take a look …

People will adopt more mindful travel practices

–Marie Claire, October 29, 2020

There was a widely shared sentiment across the industry that the pandemic would yield a new generation of slower, more mindful travelers. To say that this didn’t come to fruition on any level would be categorically unfair. For many, the pandemic was a reminder that travel is a privilege, not a right, and it resulted in a more thoughtful approach to every phase of the journey, from eco-conscious booking to on-site etiquette at their destination.

That said, 2021 saw an unprecedented number of inflight escalated passenger incidents — evidenced by the 1,012 complaints filed to the Federal Aviation Administration, up 693% from 2019 — many of which ended in violence towards an airline employee. It’s gotten so out of hand that many airlines are still not serving alcohol inflight and U.S. lawmakers have moved to ban to-go airport cocktails. Proposed fines against passengers for alleged unruly behavior, meanwhile, surpassed $1 million all the way back in August.

They’re unsettling statistics that don’t lend themselves to the idea that the majority of us are suddenly being a more altruistic version of ourselves as a result of having lived through a pandemic.

“What really hurts are the people who won’t even look at you in the eye,” a 28-year old American Airlines flight attendant told The New York Times in regards to mask-related harassment she’d received in recent months. “I don’t even feel like a human anymore.”

In a Marie Claire story about mindful travel from October 2020, Sukriti Wahi wrote: “mindfulness essentially means ‘awareness,’ referring to the act of being fully present in any given moment, without being reactive or overwhelmed by what is going on around us.”

So, yeah … no.

Travel Agents will mount a comeback

–National Geographic, October 5, 2020

It’s true that the pandemic reignited interest in utilizing travel agents to help navigate the new travel terrain, which — thanks to the numerous and ever-changing rules, restrictions, requirements and regulations — proved an intimidating feat for even the most seasoned of jet-setters. Those plans, however, fell flat due to a nationwide shortage of travel advisors who, largely in part to the third-party booking-site boom, had previously come to be regarded as surplus to demands — particularly among younger, more tech-savvy consumers.

Per a report from Skift, a study from the American Society of Travel Advisors and Sandals Resorts from this May past showed that only 27% of travelers surveyed prior to the pandemic reported always having used a travel advisor. Post-pandemic, 44% of travelers who had seldom or never relied on a travel advisor in the past found themselves suddenly more inclined to do so. The problem? More than 60% of travel advisors were either laid off or furloughed in 2020 and, because those who are still working in the field have reported feeling overworked and under-supported by the industry as a whole, it’s become a rather unattractive and unpredictable time for new advisors to enter the field — even despite demand.

Perhaps 2022 will be the year that travel agents make a triumphant comeback. Alternatively, perhaps 2022 is when the profession will come to a definitive end — at least as it exists today.

Airlines will rebound

–CNN, March 15, 2021

It’s no secret that the airline industry took a massive blow in 2020, with the six largest carriers netting a loss of more than $35 billion altogether, meaning that quite literally anything less than a $35 billion loss would constitute a rebound. But the number of passengers being screened at TSA checkpoints has been increasing month over month with relative consistency since March 2021, so the demand is undeniably returning. In fact, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, TSA reported screening 2,451,300 people — more than double the volume of the equivalent day last year and a new pandemic record.

But despite plenty of warning, the airline industry was anything but ready for the surge in travelers. Operational breakdowns stemming predominantly from staffing shortages caused record numbers of cancellations and delays. Over Halloween Weekend, American Airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights nationwide. Between July 30 and August 9, budget airline Spirit canceled more than 2,800 flights.

The staffing shortage became even more pressing in the past month due to a mandate requiring all federal contractors to get the vaccine, leaving executives at both TSA and airlines reconsidering their position (some even relaxed their initial stance).

Unfortunately, getting a hold of an airline customer service representative in light of all of the operational disruption has also been virtually impossible — again due to staffing shortages (many took leave or voluntary separation packages during the pandemic). For months, customers have run into exorbitant wait times — some reportedly as long as 275 minutes

Suffice to say, it’s been a turbulent year for the airline industry — and we don’t mean atmospherically.

“2021 may be the year of the road trip”

Washington Post, March 7, 2021

This is another prediction that was, at face value, accurate … assuming the people wanting to take a roadtrip already owned a car. That’s because no one predicted the rental car shortage that left travelers in premier destinations like Hawaii resorting to U-Hauls as a means of transportation.

Back in April, CNN reported that more than a half a million cars (roughly a third of its combined inventory) had been sold off and the global shortage of microchips had slowed car production to a standstill, resulting in unprecedented spikes in prices. A month prior, CNN affiliate KHNL-TV reported that the cheapest rental car in Maui was $722 a day. And if you were willing to pay the price, experts were suggesting making reservations two months in advance to ensure a rental.

Not only that, because most infrastructure projects were halted in 2020, roadwork came back with a vengeance this year. “It was very common for states to put all sorts of projects on hold last summer because of budget uncertainty, not to mention safety precautions,” Richard Auxier, a senior policy associate at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, told The New York Times in June. But that all changed when, according to Auxier, the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill was passed this March past, reallocating funds to state and local governments for “transportation and infrastructure investments.”

“Now, not only is the economy opening back up, but [state transportation departments] have this infusion of federal dollars that will either get them back to where they were before the pandemic or actually let them fund projects they might not have done,” he added.

Looking forward, it’s hard to say what a “Golden Age of Travel” might actually encapsulate today. Accessibility comes to mind, both from a financial standpoint and in regards to those with disabilities who still report often feeling anxious and humiliated, namely by the airline industry. As it stands now, leisure travel is very much a social privilege. Other sensitivities that are increasingly top of mind for travelers include charges of neocolonialism, the industry’s contribution to gentrification, and the impact of jet travel on the environment.

Will we ever have a “golden age of travel”? Have we ever had one? Maybe the good news is that it’s something to look forward to — and work toward. Any industry is ultimately guided by the whims and desires of its customers. So as we look forward to 2022, do your best to be the traveler that you want to see in the world.


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