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Airlines Flag Falling Bookings as Covid-19 Cases Climb

Travelers are calling off holiday trips as Covid-19 case counts surge around the country, threatening U.S. airlines’ last hopes for bringing in more revenue this year.

United Airlines Holdings Inc. UAL -0.27% became the latest carrier on Thursday to report that bookings have slowed and cancellations have risen over the last week amid a nationwide surge in Covid-19 cases. Southwest Airlines Co. said last week that new bookings have slowed and has said cancellations have picked up. Alaska Air Group Inc. said Thursday that renewed state and local restrictions on travel and public gatherings have “negatively impacted demand in the immediate term.”

“We’ve seen a dampening of demand,” American Airlines Group Inc. President Robert Isom said at an industry event Thursday.

Airline executives say they are not surprised to see cancellations on the rise. They watched a similar pattern play out this summer when a brief travel rebound was cut short by a surge in cases and new travel restrictions. “We’re not shocked at that,” Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly said Thursday on a call with reporters. Even with more cancellations, Southwest executives said flights are getting fuller and they expect November to be an improvement over October. “We’re still looking at a better month,” Mr. Kelly said.

Passenger travel on airlines, which was gradually recovering for a time earlier this year, has plateaued recently, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration. The number of people passing through airport security checkpoints each day remains down by about 60% to 70% each day compared with last year.

As the holiday season approaches, public-health officials have capped the size of in-person gatherings in some states and pleaded with Americans not to travel in the hopes of preventing further spread of the viral disease that has killed more than 250,000 people in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday recommended people not travel over Thanksgiving.

The message has gotten through for some people who had planned to fly. Autumn Van Buren, 25 years old, booked a flight in September to visit her boyfriend and his family in Maryland for Thanksgiving from her home in Illinois.

“I think there was just a general hope that things were going to get better,” she said Thursday.

But as the weeks passed and the number of daily cases kept climbing, she started to rethink her plans. The trip included a long layover in Chicago. Precautions like getting tested, wearing masks and staying away from others didn’t feel like enough. She canceled the trip Nov. 1.

“His family trusted me in being safe, but it was the fact that we couldn’t control other people in whether or not they were being safe and following protocols,” she said.

Airlines still expect to accommodate more passengers over Thanksgiving. United earlier this month added 1,400 domestic flights for the week of Thanksgiving and still expects the week to be its busiest since the pandemic began to decimate travel demand in March.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske said Thursday that the agency expects daily travel volumes similar to other relatively busy weekends recently. The number of people going through the agency’s security checkpoints surpassed one million on Oct. 18 for the first time since March—something that hasn’t been repeated since. AAA said it expects some 2.4 million people to fly over the Thanksgiving holiday—down 47.5% from last year.

United said it doesn’t expect its recovery to follow a linear path and that changes in demand could lead it to further cut flight capacity. United previously forecast that capacity would decline by about 55% year over year in the fourth quarter but tweaked its guidance Thursday to say that capacity will be down by at least that proportion.

This article originally appeared on WSJ

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