Growing concern over the rapidly spreading delta variant of COVID-19 is creating turmoil for shares of major travel agencies, but airline executives say they see no slowdown in ticket sales, possibly because that a high percentage of their best clients are fully immunized.
We haven’t seen any impact on bookings, which continue to get stronger every week, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said on Wednesday.
Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said the same last week, although he added that variants continued to hamper international travel by delaying the opening of borders.
Over 2 million people a day, mostly summer vacationers, fill US airports. This is a turnaround from the confinement of summer 2020.
The travel resumption set in earlier this year as vaccinations increased and cases of infection declined. Now, the variants are fueling a tripling of new reported cases of COVID-19 in the United States over the past two weeks, although only a fraction of the peak in January and outbreaks triggered in other countries.
Earlier in the pandemic, airlines saw bad headlines about the virus would cause large numbers of people to cancel trips. For much of 2020, cancellations exceeded ticket sales. Americans seem less fearful of the variants now that many of them are vaccinated, airline executives say.
United said its cancellation rate has not changed in recent weeks, although it remains higher than before the pandemic. This could be due to the millions of Americans, especially those who travel, who have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
About 57% of Americans of vaccine age are fully immunized, according to government figures. United said 84% of its frequent flyer program members are vaccinated.
Even though travelers weren’t moved by the headlines, investors were scared. They fear that the rise of variants could lead governments to reimpose travel restrictions that could bypass the resumption of travel.
Airlines officials are pressing the Biden administration to lift restrictions that prevent most Europeans from entering the United States, but the limits imposed in March 2020 remain in place. They note that many European countries have relaxed border restrictions, leading to an increase in bookings from American vacationers this summer.
We work closely with the government, and it’s a two-way conversation where they get feedback from us, feedback for them, Kirby said on a call with analysts and reporters. We all want to make sure we do it safely.
Kirby said the industry has shown a willingness to accept vaccination requirements, as many other countries require visitors from the United States and other places.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday without providing much detail that talks with other countries were continuing. She saw no contradiction in European countries welcoming Americans as the United States continues to ban most non-American citizens from traveling from Europe.
We give directions to American citizens. They make their own decisions about whether to travel to certain countries around the world, she said. Any decision to reopen international travel (to the United States) will be guided by our own public health and medical experts.
US airlines lost billions last year but are seeing their fortunes improve. Southwest and Delta had profitable quarters in 2021 due to their share of $ 54 billion in federal pandemic assistance for the airline industry. United said this week they expect to make money in the third and fourth quarters, even excluding taxpayer help.
After persuading thousands of employees to quit last year, some airlines have been short-staffed by the pace of travel resumption, leading to an increase in delayed or canceled flights. Now the hiring signs are out.
American told employees on Wednesday that it plans to hire 350 pilots this year and more than 1,000 more than expected next year. As recently as last week, American announced that it would be recalling 3,300 flight attendants from their voluntary leave this year to help manage vacation traffic and hire about 800 more by next spring. Other airlines have also announced hiring targets.
In trading Wednesday, shares of American and United closed up 4%, Southwest climbed 3% and Delta 2%. Shares of cruise lines and hotels also rose.
David Koenig can be contacted at www.twitter.com/airlinewriter
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