Kayak CEO says holiday travel interest is pacing 35% ahead of last year

After coronavirus fears brought flight cancellation after flight cancellation, Americans are slowly starting to think about flying again.

While the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) airport checkpoint data shows passenger traffic remains about just 20% of what it was at this time last year, Kayak CEO Steve Hafner says he’s starting to see search interest for holiday flights pace ahead of what the flight platform saw in 2019. That’s driving optimism that a slow, but steady recovery to air travel might be able to sustain its momentum.

“We have seen a spike in holiday travel — so people looking for travel over Christmas and the Thanksgiving period is about 35% higher on Kayak right now than it was this time last year,” Hafner told Yahoo Finance’s YFi PM. “I think what that reflects is that people aren’t looking for flights for the summer anymore, but they are looking at flights for the holidays.”

As a Booking Holdings (BKNG) subsidiary, Kayak processes about 1 billion travel queries and Hafner says the data is encouraging, but doesn’t necessarily indicate traffic might suddenly snap back completely by the holidays as some people are projecting.

Perhaps most optimistically, a recent analysis of TSA traveler log data from Fundstrat Global Advisors noted that the rebound in airport traffic over the last few weeks has formed an exponential trend line. Traffic has rebounded from an April low of nearly 80,000 passengers a day to about 550,000 as of late June. As crazy as it sounds, they say the exponential uptick in passenger data points to a return to normal 2019 passenger traffic levels of about 2.5 million daily passengers by August 2020. Hafner says the travel picture isn’t quite that rosy.

“I think the TSA numbers and the prediction off of that is a little optimistic,” he said. “At the lows in April when the coronavirus was really hitting the travel industry hard, our query volume was down 80% versus the previous year. In the last couple weeks it’s bounced back to about a 50% decline, but I don’t see us getting back to normal by August.”

Aside from a drop in overall flight search interest, Hafner predicts that when travel comes back it’s not going to return universally across the board. Even now, Kayak is seeing more interest in domestic destinations and cities that are less dense relative to the destinations travelers sought out in the past.

“The travel interest is going to come back, but it’s going to come back different,” he said. “What we’re seeing on Kayak is the usual hotspots, which is crowded cities like New York and international cities like London and Paris and Rome, aren’t where people are looking to go. They are actually looking to go to less crowded cities, domestic cities and places with lots of outdoor activities.”

This year, Kayak’s parent company Booking Holdings stock has fallen about 22% as travel interest has dropped due to the ongoing pandemic.

Zack Guzman is the host of YFi PM as well as a senior writer and on-air reporter covering entrepreneurship, cannabis, startups, and breaking news at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @zGuz.

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