The airline industry is welcoming November 8, the day the U.S. is reopening to all vaccinated international travelers. The long-awaited move by the U.S. follows 18 months of restrictions for 33 countries during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic that separated families, impeded business travel and frustrated tourists and vacationers. The announcement was made by the White House on October 15.
It is certainly a day that the major carriers like Air France, American Airlines, British Airways, Delta, United Airlines and others are looking forward to. They have been scrambling to meet the sudden surge in demand by adding flights, trading larger planes for smaller ones and increasing their efforts to hire and retain staff.
The measure is a relief for airlines, which have struggled to return to profitability with international travel curbed for more than a year and a half. American’s CEO Doug Parker said in a statement, “We welcome the Biden administration’s science-based approach to begin lifting the restrictions on travel to the U.S. that were put into place at the start of the pandemic.”
Just after the White House announcement, airline reservations to the United States immediately took off. British Airways saw a 900 percent increase in searches for flights and holiday packages to key U.S. destinations compared to the previous week. American Airlines garnered a 66 percent jump in flight reservations to Britain, 40 percent to Europe and 74 percent to Brazil.
At United Airlines, traffic to Latin America has fully returned to its level from 2019, but the rest of international travel remains at only about 63 percent.
The U.S. carrier is betting big on a vibrant return to international travel, introducing five new destinations in the Spring including destinations in Spain and Norway as well as adding flights to popular destinations such as Rome and Dublin and also reviving service to Frankfurt, Nice and other cities.
Airlines are planning for a modest pullback in January and February after an expected strong holiday season. They anticipate a strong demand in the Spring, that will intensify for the traditionally busiest season, in the summer.
Morningstar analyst Burkett Huey said, “Airlines should have enough planes to meet rising demand. But whether there is sufficient staff is a question mark.”
Airlines welcomed the exiting of thousands of employees early in the pandemic. But both American and Southwest have in recent weeks canceled thousands of flights due in part to meager staff levels.
Normally, airlines fly wide body planes across the Atlantic on busy routes to provide comfortable seats for business travelers, and then organize smaller planes for touristic destinations.
But it is still unclear when there will be a robust recovery in business travel, an unknow that affects airline planning. But if business travelers are late to come back, airlines could decide to plan more direct flights using the newer narrow body jets with longer range.