Airlines log busiest days since early 2020 over Thanksgiving but omicron poses new challenge
- Cancellations were minimal compared with mass disruptions earlier this year.
- Southwest and American were among the airlines that offered staff extra bonus pay for holiday trips.
- Concern over the omicron variant sparked new travel restrictions in the U.K., U.S.,Japan, Israel and elsewhere.
U.S. airlines over Thanksgiving week had some of their busiest days since before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic as travelers returned in droves to reunite with family after a subdued holiday last year.
The Transportation Security Administration screened nearly 2.5 million people on Sunday, the most since Feb. 15, 2020. That was about 15% below the number of people TSA screened two years earlier.
Airports, planes and parking lots were packed but travelers and airlines lucked out with mostly good weather and small numbers of cancellations, unlike the mass disruptions that affected hundreds of thousands of passengers during several episodes since this summer.
Airlines including Southwest and American had offered flight attendants and other staff extra pay or bonuses for working holiday trips and meeting attendance goals.
Despite the surge in air travel over the holiday, airlines are now facing a new challenge as more countries report cases of the omicron variant of Covid-19, just as international travel was rebounding as more nations loosened travel rules.
Airline executives said bookings surged when travel restrictions that barred international tourism from more than 30 countries in the U.S. were lifted on Nov. 8. International travel is key to carriers' financial recovery from the pandemic.
Scientists in South Africa were the first to detect the new variant.
The new strain has raised concerns among health officials over whether it could be more easily transmissible. Cases of omicron have been found in South Africa, the U.K., Israel, Hong Kong, Canada and other countries. Dutch health officials said Sunday that they had found at least 13 cases of omicron out of 61 passengers who tested positive for Covid on two flights from South Africa.
The Biden administration starting Monday is temporarily banning visitors from South Africa and seven other southern African nations, less than a month after it lifted pandemic rules that barred visitors from South Africa, the U.K. and more than 30 other countries.
Both Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, the only U.S. carriers with nonstop service to South Africa, on Friday said they aren't changing their schedules.
Israel banned foreign visitors for two weeks, in one of the strictest new rules. Japan followed suit with a similar restriction, effective Tuesday. The U.K. will require travelers take a PCR test upon arrival from abroad and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.
Concerns about the variant and new travel restrictions on Friday sent airline and aerospace stocks tumbling, though they were up modestly in premarket trading on Monday.
"There is still a lot to learn about the variant and how people will react to travel as a result of it, but we believe the stocks are in for volatility until more is known," MKM Partners airline analyst Conor Cunningham wrote in a note Sunday.
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