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What Will The Omicron Variant Mean For Winter Travel?

It has been whispered very quietly, but there were encouraging signs last week that air travel in the US might finally be recovering from the pandemic. The week and weekend leading up to Thanksgiving and were some of the busiest dates that airlines have experienced since travel restrictions came into place in spring 2020.

More than 14 million people were screened by TSA over the week, more than double the 6.4 million for the same time last year. Sunday alone saw over 2.5 millions passengers go through US airport security, just 12% shy of pre-pandemic levels and the busiest single day of air travel since February 2020.

Not only were travellers returning to the skies in their millions but, unlike earlier in the year, the airlines were ready to take them there.

From the 22nd to the 28th November, aviation data provider FlightAware recorded fewer than 600 cancellations across all domestic flights, accounting for under 0.5 percent of all those scheduled.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving saw the highest number of airline passengers since February 2020.

These are great numbers by any standards, but represent a particular triumph in light of the missteps some airlines took the last time passenger numbers surged over a holiday. American and Southwest had to cancel hundreds of flights over Halloween, leaving customers and those in the industry alike fearing the worst ahead of Thanksgiving.

Admittedly much fairer weather in the last week of November contributed to the contrast between the two holiday numbers looking so stark, but it still felt as though airlines were moving back to towards their pre-pandemic levels of operations. At least, until the news of the new Omicron Covid variant broke last week.

A lot remains unknown about this new variant, such as how it compares to previous mutations, and world governments are therefore unsure how to react.

Nevertheless, on Monday President Biden took the bold step of announcing a travel ban for non-US travelers who have been in South Africa, where the mutation was first identified, as well as seven other southern African countries within the past fourteen days.

This is disheartening news for anyone hoping to escape to the Southern hemisphere in search of some winter sun, whilst the uncertainty and possibility of blanket travel bans harks unsettlingly back to the earlier days of the pandemic.

America is not the only country beginning to take precautionary travel measures against the omicron variant, as cases pop up around the globe. Japan and Israel have implemented blanket bans on all foreign visitors, whilst the U.K. has announced stricter testing and isolation protocols for all travelers.

A number of countries are placing travel bans on visitors from South Africa and several other African countries.

Airlines have been less skittish, however, with United and Delta announcing they have no plans to change their flight schedules to South Africa. The airlines are currently the only two US carriers that offer non-stop services to the country, both flying to Johannesburg. United have previously said they intend to recommence their Cape Town route as of December 1.

It is in an eye-catching move from the aviation giants in light of the President’s announcement, but they have offered their own explanations.

Delta clarified that “The health and safety of our employees and customers remains our top priority. Delta will continue to work closely with out government partners to monitor the new Covid-19 variant and any travel restrictions.”

United, meanwhile, described their routes to Africa as “vital”, as one of the only existing commercial routes for supplies and personnel between the continent and the United States.

Their views on how this issue ought to be approached seem consistent with the views of aviation leaders. Willie Walsh, head of the International Air Transport Association, recently called for “safe alternatives to border closures and quarantine.”

Similarly, Tori Emerson Barnes of the U.S. Travel Association said “Covid variants are of concern, but closed borders have not presented their presence in the United States while vaccinations have proven incredibly durable. With a vaccine and testing requirements in place to enter the US, we continue to believe that assessing an individuals risk and health status is the best way to welcome qualified travelers into the United States.”

Delta and United Airlines have said they are not canceling flights to Johannesburg

These statements and the stances of major airlines are encouraging for those fearing that the Omicron variant might hamstring air travel once more, just as it looked to be experiencing a sustained resurgence.

Conversely, it might be cause for alarm for many as cases crop up across the world. Indeed, Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said that, whilst Omicron has not be detected in the United States yet, “he would not be surprised” if it was already in the country.

Ultimately it isn’t clear yet how the omicron variant will affect travel demand or feasibility, if it all. But if travel bans crop up internationally and concerns over this mutation grow, than the rebound of US international travel may be shot down before it had even got off the ground.

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