QCOSTARICA – Airlines are preparing to receive vaccinated travelers from 33 countries starting Monday, authorized to return to the United States after 20 months of border closures.
Air France, British Airways and United Airlines, companies that rely heavily on trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic routes, added flights, chose larger planes and secured enough staff.
The White House announcement about the lifting of restrictions was expected for months by separated families, business travelers or simple tourists, since because of the coronavirus, Washington drastically limited the arrival of passengers from those countries, including the Schengen area, Great Britain, China, India and Brazil.
Ticket purchases immediately exploded. British Airways saw flight bookings and stays in some US cities grow by 900% for the days leading up to Christmas, compared to the week preceding the White House announcement. At American Airlines, bookings jumped 66% to Great Britain after the announcement, 40% to Europe and 74% to Brazil.
The flights on November 8, the reopening date, were sold out.
Airlines filled planes flying for a long time with empty seats, progressively adding more. Air France recently went from three to five daily flights between Paris and New York, its busiest line. On the route to Houston, it will replace the Airbus 330s with Boeing 777s, with more seats.
Air France expects to return between now and March 2022 at 90% of its pre-pandemic capacity in the United States, compared to 65% in October. After an expected and probably moderate bump between January and February, airlines expect a rise in spring and especially in summer, traditionally the best season.
At United, the flight schedule to tourist destinations in Latin America has already returned to 2019 levels, but its international schedule remains at 63%. The US airline is committed to transatlantic flights: it will reopen five new destinations in spring (Jordan, Portugal, Norway, Spain); will add flights to London, Berlin, Dublin, Milan, Munich and Rome; and will reopen routes interrupted during the pandemic, including Frankfurt, Nice and Zurich.
Borders are closed to the unvaccinated
But while they are being opened for some, the borders will be closed for many Latin Americans with less access to the vaccine in their countries and who until now traveled as tourists to the United States to get immunized; as well as for those who have received vaccines that have not been approved by the FDA or the World Health Organization (WHO).
Those immunized with the Russian Sputnik V and the Chinese CanSino, which were applied in many Latin American countries, including Argentina and Mexico, remain unable to enter the United States, for the moment.
Air traffic is also reactivated in the trans-Pacific, but more slowly. Singapore Airlines, which took advantage of the opening of a corridor for vaccinated passengers between Singapore and North America in October, expects to return to 77% of its precovid flights between the two areas in December, with the reopening of routes between Seattle and Vancouver.
For Burkett Huey, Air Transport Specialist at Morningstar, airlines have enough planes to handle the flow of travelers: “Some large carriers were removed from the fleets in 2020, but nothing that completely alters the landscape.”
The uncertainty concerns the staff, he assures. In the United States, where airlines instituted extensive voluntary retirement plans at the start of the pandemic, American and Southwest recently had to cancel thousands of flights due to a lack of workers. The question concerns above all the return of business travelers, favorites of airlines.
In transatlantic flights, airlines until now favored some key routes with large carriers, to include comfortable seats for business travelers, and completed the routes with internal flights in the United States and Europe.
But with fewer business travelers, they could offer more direct routes to tourists, using new, smaller but long-distance planes like the A321neo.