Most analysts take for granted that consumers treat travel as a luxury, in terms of both consumption and avoidance patterns. Vacationers can spend their time any number of ways and even business travel can increasingly swap out Facetime for flying. As a result, when conditions make travel (particularly flying) more expensive or increase the perception of risk, consumption declines elastically.
So earlier this year when President Trump began making good on his campaign pledge to issue immigration and travel bans, experts expected this to show up in the form of reduced travel numbers and industry profits. In particular, the uncertainty about border entry led many lawyers to recommend that foreign nationals take care about trying to enter or leave the United States.
However, eight months into the Trump administration, those fears are proving overwrought.
According to research by KeyBanc, in the second quarter of 2017 trends have "pointed to a resurgence in the face of potential Trump policy changes."
"In spite of partial enactment of Trump's travel ban and ongoing security controversies like the potential laptop ban," analysts wrote, "we were most encouraged by the better-than-feared pickup in online travel spending, which rose from the [6% to 7% year-to-year] growth levels it has been at for the past several years to up close to the mid-teens the past two months."
After weak growth in the beginning of the year and predictions that this would continue indefinitely, over May and June online travel agencies have clocked growth even in excess of their gains last summer.
There are two main takeaways from these results.
First, the chaos from Trump's White House has far reaching consequences.
As has been reported numerous times, this administration has demonstrated an unprecedented degree of confusion and uncertainty when it comes to actual policymaking. The President's rhetoric, both through official and unfiltered channels, often does not match the regulations actually issued by his staff. Those rules which the administration do issue often better reflect political statements than policy expertise, and consequently fail when it comes to either implementation or legal challenges.
In few places has this been more true than when it comes to the president's travel bans.
It should have come as no surprise that travel fell off in the early months of the Trump administration when travelers (both foreign and domestic) had no idea what to expect from this travel ban. The President campaigned strongly on it, and early reluctance to travel in the face of aggressive border controls made sense for many travelers concerned about their ability to enter or re-enter the country.
Yet Trump's travel ban has been the subject of numerous legal challenges and technical problems. These documents were infamously vetted primarily by the administration's political stuff, without input from the legal team, and have come under fire as little more than a Muslim ban.
As a result, those early fears have faded in the face of the administration's ongoing inability to issue and enforce its policies. Signal fatigue has set in among many travelers, as this ongoing debate settles into background noise that they can tune out.
At the same time, the longer it takes the administration to make this ban real, the more it seems that they never might.
Travelers who believe that this has faded from a legitimate threat to a Twitter tiger may choose not to change their plans around it. This may be most true when it comes to international travel, given that far more liberals own passports than conservatives.
Then there is our second takeaway: regardless of the cause, American travelers just don't seem to worry as much about chaos anymore.
"My sense is that people have become much more immune to kind of everything," said Jeff Klee, CEO of Cheap Air. "All geopolitical concerns. It used to be that there would be a terrorist attack somewhere and there would be a noticeable impact, maybe not a long term impact but for at least a couple of weeks we'd see it and we'd feel it."
"But now, it just kind of seems that whatever happens doesn't move the needle," he added.
This is not, he emphasized, to say that travelers ignore geopolitics altogether. Specific destinations see a dip in the wake of a terror incident, although much less of one than they used to. However in the past those travelers used to stay home. Today, they tend to simply pick a different destination.
Take, for example, Europe, which has seen numerous terror threats and attacks in 2017. The response?
"Fares have come down extremely significantly and there's a corresponding increase in bookings," Klee said. "I've been doing this for almost 30 years now and in some cases some of the fares that I've seen for peak summer travel to Europe are lower than when I started in this business."
"As far as our international travel, we've seen the far away destinations have become more popular at the expense somewhat of closer destinations," he added. "For instance Asia, the South Pacific Europe, the Middle East are all up."
For better or worse, American travelers don't seem as spooked by uncertainty as they used to be.
So despite the ongoing political questions, and despite all expectations, they continue to fly.