Air Journey Was Gaining Momentum. Now What?
Confidence in the progress of the coronavirus pandemic has helped passengers get back on planes in recent months, and Thanksgiving Week is becoming one of the busiest periods for U.S. air travel since it nearly stalled in the spring. News that effective vaccines might be in the immediate vicinity cleared the airlines’ stocks.
However, new concerns about the spread of the virus are rocking travelers and threatening airline hopes for the months ahead.
United Airlines announced Thursday that bookings had slowed and cancellations had increased in recent days due to the increase in virus cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans to avoid vacation travel altogether and asked the industry their latest question: How dark can this winter get?
“There are two trains coming our way,” said John Grant, senior analyst at OAG, an aeronautical data firm based near London. “One is full of optimism about a vaccine and the other is sadly full of caution. Who will get there first? “
When Angela Henry booked her Thanksgiving flights months ago, she had no idea that the US would set new records for coronavirus infections at the start of the vacation. Nor did she know she was going to be pregnant.
Mrs. Henry, 30, and her husband tormented over whether to stick with their plan to fly from Northern California to Atlanta for Thanksgiving with his family. After seeking advice from relatives and medical professionals and weighing the risks, they recently decided to do so.
“It was tough,” she said. “I was just trying to find that rational middle ground.”
Airlines argue that it is generally safe to fly because of the various policies that limit contagion, high-end air filtration aboard planes, and the relatively few published cases of coronavirus spreading in flight. But the science is far from clear, travelers are still at risk throughout their journey, and many potential passengers have been discouraged by lockdowns and breakouts in the places they tried to visit.
Passenger numbers are still down more than 60 percent year over year, and the industry is losing tens of millions of dollars every day.
Airlines for America, a group that represents the country’s largest airlines, reckoned with more passengers than in the weeks before or after, although the number of seats for sale will still decrease by around 40 percent year-on-year. American Airlines expects to operate around 15 percent more flights around the vacation than in the rest of the month. Delta Air Lines expects to carry around two million passengers over the holidays, and United expects Thanksgiving Week to be the busiest since the pandemic began.
“You can see that mask adherence is really good. they saw how clean the planes are; You may even have seen the electrostatic sprayers in action. They saw us get on the plane from back to front. You saw social distancing on the jet bridge – all of which contributed to increased confidence in air travel, ”said Josh Earnest, United’s chief communications officer.
Thanksgiving may improve the fortunes of the aviation industry, but the outlook for passenger demand in the coming weeks is weaker. Southwest Airlines said last week that booking momentum appeared to be slowing for the rest of the year. American Airlines, whose demand has also declined due to the virus, cut flights between the US and Europe in December and operated just two daily flights from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to London and Frankfurt.
To some extent, the unevenness in travel recovery is no surprise, said Helane Becker, executive director and senior airline analyst at Cowen.
“We always knew it would be choppy, but that means we think people want to travel and are looking for ways to get out,” Ms. Becker said during a panel on Thursday at Skift Aviation Forum.
The mood in Europe is far worse, and hopes for a revival during the holiday season are largely dashed by the infection resurgence and lockdown measures reintroduced this month to contain the spread of the virus.
Ski resorts in the US remain hopeful for winter travel, but those in France, Austria and Italy will be closed at least until the end of November. Thousands of Christmas markets, which attract millions of visitors each year with mulled wine, roasted chestnuts and handmade Christmas gifts, have been canceled and Santa Claus displays have gone online.
“Looking at the landscape across Europe, we don’t have high expectations for the winter season,” said Eric Dresin, Secretary General of the European Travel Agents ‘and Tour Operators’ Association. “We are in a situation where we cannot plan anything and that is of course crippling for the industry.”
The European Union uses a traffic light system to determine travel restrictions, to mark countries and individual regions in green, amber or red, based on the new infection rate, the test rates and the incidence per 100,000 inhabitants in the last 14 days. In most Member States, travelers arriving from red risk areas must have a coronavirus test on arrival or self-quarantine. At the end of last week, all European countries except Norway and Finland were marked in red.
Travel and aviation associations across Europe are calling for coordinated testing and contact tracing protocols to replace blanket quarantine measures, arguing that they cause uncertainty and confusion among travelers and have limited impact on the spread of the virus.
Elsbeth McGawley, a London-based restaurant manager, had to return to the UK from France in August to avoid a two-week quarantine request announced just 24 hours before it came into effect. She still had six days to book her hotel but had to cancel because she couldn’t afford to take time off from work due to quarantine.
“It was a nightmare to switch my ticket and make it into the past,” she said in a telephone interview. “I just wanted a little break, a change of scene, after being locked up at home for months, but it became an ordeal and it wasn’t worth the effort.”
Ms. McGawley usually books her Christmas trip to European cities a year in advance but this year she canceled her plans and decided to stay in the UK to avoid last minute disappointment.
“It’s impossible to book now, a month in advance,” she said. “There are restrictions everywhere, and even if a place opens up, there is no way of knowing if things will stay that way. It’s a big gamble and not worth the risk as there is no guarantee that if something goes wrong you will get a refund. “
Tour operators across Europe reported that more people have searched for winter vacation destinations in the past few weeks, but few of those inquiries have turned into bookings due to uncertainty about travel restrictions. The lack of such stringent restrictions has kept travel in the United States going, but how long is only a guess.
“It’s such a difficult situation for everyone right now,” said Grant of OAG, the aviation data firm. “We are all sitting here and waiting to see how the next few weeks develop not only from Thanksgiving, but also from the likely Covid infection rates.”