Southwest, JetBlue launch low-fare sales as COVID-19 continues to stifle air travel

International Air Transport Association does not expect a full recovery until 2023

Two major U.S. air carriers are entering the new year looking to drum up travel demand by offering low-fare sales to customers willing to take to the skies after a bruising 2020 -- a year that wreaked havoc on the airline industry.

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Southwest Airlines on Monday launched a sale on one-way fares to drum up demand for spring travel amid concerns that the resurgence of the coronavirus will continue to stifle travel in the first quarter.

The carrier is offering tickets starting at $29 each way. The sale ends Thursday, Jan. 7, and is for travel booked for March and April only.

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Meanwhile, Southwest’s low-cost competitor, JetBlue, announced it had launched a winter sale that offers one-way tickets starting at $49.

The New York-based airline is hosting its sale until Jan. 12 and has only listed flights departing from John F. Kennedy International Airport, LaGuardia Airport, Westchester County Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport. Customers who book flights between Jan. 16 and June 17 can secure one-way travel to many East Coast destinations for less than $100.

Some of JetBlue’s cheapest domestic flights depart from JFK to Dallas; Buffalo, N.Y.; Burlington, Vt.; Rochester, N.Y.; and Syracuse, N.Y., for as low as $49. Other cross-country or international flights are mostly being offered for under $200, including vacation hotspots such as Las Vegas, Palm Springs, Calif., and Aruba.

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The sales come on the heels of a travel surge during the holiday season. Passengers shuffled through airports in record numbers ahead of Thanksgiving and between Christmas and New Year’s -- even as federal health officials pleaded for Americans to stay home to stem the spread of the virus.

Now that the holidays are over, leisure travelers have even fewer reasons to fly, and airline executives cautioned that travel will likely remain depressed at the start of 2021.

Bill Tierney, Southwest Airlines’ vice president of marketing, told FOX Business that leisure travel demand remains "fragile" and will likely remain that way "throughout much of 2021."

"We expect that the travel industry is looking at a long recovery, but we are hopeful as we’ve seen some growth as we continue adapting to customer needs and expectations," Tierney said.

In a New Year’s Day memo, Delta CEO Ed Bastian also told employees that he expects 2021 to start with travel deeply depressed like it was last year.

"It’s likely that we’ll experience two distinct phases during the next 12 months,” Bastian said. “The first will look a lot like 2020, with travel demand deeply depressed and our focus on ensuring the health and safety of our people and customers.”

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Since March, the industry has been upended by various travel restrictions designed to stop the spread of the virus. As a result, the airline industry continues to pile up billions of dollars in losses.

Although passenger numbers are expected to rise above 60% in 2021 from "the depressed 2020 base," they are still projected to be down almost 30% compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to the International Air Transport Association.

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The industry trade group estimated that full recovery to 2019 levels is not expected until 2023.

However, Airlines for America, the trade organization representing the leading U.S. airlines, told FOX Business that it projects a 14% to 63% improvement in U.S. airline passenger traffic from 2020 to 2021.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.