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Coronavirus

Where can people fly right now? The frantic pitch to save summer travels

Published: Updated:

The effort to save Europe’s travel industry has devolved into an increasingly desperate race against the clock.

With June just one week away, there’s little time left to ignite the summer travel boom that airlines, hotels and tourist-dependent economies are counting on to reverse a year-long booking drought. Yet borders are opening slowly, prompting a furious lobbying campaign to persuade health authorities that flying is safe.

Read the latest updates in our dedicated coronavirus section.

The most intense action involves the UK’s green list of countries to which travel is allowed without quarantine upon return. In the first week of June, the government is due to update its traffic-light system established on May 7, and airlines and governments alike want it to be rapidly expanded.

Greece and Spain have lobbied hard to move up from amber to join Portugal, now alone among significant green-listed destinations. The United Arab Emirates, home to long-distance hubs in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, wants off of the red list, where it sits despite relatively low infection rates. Airlines stand ready to transport Brits to Mykonos, the Costa Brava and other destinations both east and west.

“I don’t think the UK aviation industry can go through another lost summer without grave consequences,’’ EasyJet Plc Chief Executive Officer Johan Lundgren said Wednesday at a press conference hosted by lobby group Airlines U.K. Should official restrictions make it impossible to operate this summer, “the government needs to be ready and prepared to step up to protect this industry, he said.

Saudi Arabia’s national carrier Saudia Airlines resumes operating its international flights to 30 international destinations around the world after the Kingdom’s decision to lift the suspension on citizens traveling abroad took effect. (SPA)
Saudi Arabia’s national carrier Saudia Airlines resumes operating its international flights to 30 international destinations around the world after the Kingdom’s decision to lift the suspension on citizens traveling abroad took effect. (SPA)

Lundgren and others argue that the UK’s rapid vaccine rollout has provided enough protection to open up at a faster pace, and allow vaccinated people to travel freely, as the European Union is preparing to do next month.

Yet the government, battling a surge of Covid-19 cases caused by a variant first detected in India, has remained cautious. Germany shut its doors to British leisure travelers, citing the dangers of the fast-spreading strain, while France on Wednesday said it would stiffen a quarantine requirement, amplifying the risk of further setbacks.

“It’s clearly very disappointing, Willie Walsh, the director general of the International Air Transport Association, said in a briefing in response to the French move. “We’re seeing political reaction not to data but to anecdote.”

Some determined travelers, meanwhile, are forging ahead to amber-listed destinations despite a required 10 days of self-quarantine on return. Walsh said he sees no issues with doing that. There’s hope in the industry that people who have saved money and vacation days will give the late-starting summer some staying power into the fall shoulder season of September and October.

“I’m still optimistic that we’ll see a good recovery in the second half of this year,” Walsh said. “We’re heading in the right direction.”

What’s happening in air travel this week

Globally, the rebound in airline capacity slipped one percentage point in the past week to 57 percent of 2019 levels, based on Bloomberg’s weekly flight tracker, which uses OAG data to monitor the pulse of the comeback.

The US, which has posted steady gains over the past several weeks, took a breather and is now back below 75 percent of pre-crisis capacity. Nevertheless, airlines are becoming increasingly optimistic, with Delta Air Lines Inc. saying its recovery is progressing faster than it expected, United Airlines Holdings Inc. bullish on fares, and American Airlines Group Inc. predicting a rebound in long distance business travel.

A porter loads the luggage of recently arrived air travelers from New Delhi, into a cab after Canada's government temporarily barred passenger flights from India and Pakistan for 30 days, at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond. (Reuters)
A porter loads the luggage of recently arrived air travelers from New Delhi, into a cab after Canada's government temporarily barred passenger flights from India and Pakistan for 30 days, at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond. (Reuters)

The trans-Atlantic market is cracking open a bit, with some European countries allowing vaccinated Americans to enter. But the lucrative niche, important for the big three American carriers along with British Airways, Deutsche Lufthansa AG and Air France-KLM in Europe, won’t come back until Europeans can travel to the US.

While optimism is increasing, “airlines need to be able to sell from both ends of the route and not purely rely on the North American demand, said John Grant, chief analyst at OAG. There’s a chance that the US makes the UK green list when it’s updated, but there’s little sign President Joe Biden is ready to lighten entry restrictions for foreign travelers.

Asia, Africa

Declines in Asia, Africa and the Middle East weighed on the totals, as countries clamped down to prevent the spread of new variants. Countries continue to limit ties to India, where the health system remains under enormous strain. In Japan, a rise in coronavirus cases led the US to issue a “do not travel advisory, sowing doubt over whether the Olympic Games can be held as scheduled in July.

Europe

In Europe, the flight schedules are deteriorating slightly. In the past week, airlines in the region have trimmed back their schedules for the coming month by about 4 percent, according to data from Bloomberg NEF. Tour operator TUI AG canceled holidays to a number of amber- and red-listed countries, including Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, Mexico and Bulgaria through June 27.

Passengers wait at the check-in counters for New Zealand flights at Sydney International Airport on April 19, 2021, as Australia and New Zealand opened a trans-Tasman quarantine-free travel bubble. (File photo: AFP)
Passengers wait at the check-in counters for New Zealand flights at Sydney International Airport on April 19, 2021, as Australia and New Zealand opened a trans-Tasman quarantine-free travel bubble. (File photo: AFP)

Travel to Eastern Europe is set to get more difficult after European and UK aviation authorities told airlines to avoid the airspace of Belarus. The moves came in response to the regime’s diversion of a Ryanair Holdings Plc passenger flight to its capital, Minsk, where authorities arrested a dissident Belarusian journalist aboard.

Governments from Europe to the US have largely condemned the action and dismissed the purported bomb threat that triggered the incident as a ruse. Until now, Belarus was one of the shining lights of a travel comeback in central and eastern Europe.

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