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The Omicron variant is starting to weigh on travel: ‘Two steps forward and one step back’

Passengers walk through the international arrivals area at Kansai International Airport in Osaka, Japan.
New travel restrictions are taking hold in Japan and other countries because of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. Above, passengers walk through the international arrivals area Tuesday at Kansai International Airport in Osaka, Japan.
(Associated Press)

Another Greek letter is in the headlines and the travel industry is bracing for a new COVID-19 jolt.

Several business conferences and international gatherings have been postponed because of the uncertainty generated by the latest coronavirus variant — Omicron — and airlines are preparing for a pause to the rebound of travel that the industry started to see over the last few months.

United Airlines Chief Executive Scott Kirby called the spread of the variant a “short-term setback” and predicted Omicron will have a temporary effect on bookings, similar to the downturn airlines reported after the spread of the Delta variant several weeks ago.

“It’s like we are taking two steps forward and one step back,” he said Tuesday at an airline expo in Long Beach that drew 1,300 in-person attendees.

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Jeffrey Goh, chief executive of Star Alliance, the world’s largest airline alliance, said it was too early to predict how Omicron will affect air travel and urged industry leaders not to panic.

A day after the conference, which required proof of vaccination for entry, organizers alerted attendees that someone at the event had tested positive for COVID-19. The message didn’t specify whether the case detected was of the variant, and organizers said anyone who had close contact with the individual has been contacted.

California on Wednesday confirmed a case of Omicron — the first confirmed case in the U.S. — in an individual who returned home to San Francisco from South Africa on Nov. 22 and tested positive Monday, according to officials.

In response to the variant, the U.S. on Nov. 26 announced a temporary halt on travel from eight African countries, including South Africa, where positive test results for the new variant recently surged. Britain, the European Union, South Korea, Japan and Israel have also instituted new travel restrictions in response to the spread of the variant.

Officials note the pandemic is different this year, given the ample supply of vaccines, which should provide some protection against the new variant.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working on a revised testing order that would require international air travelers coming into the U.S. to test for COVID-19 one day before departure. The U.S. currently requires a negative COVID-19 test result within three days of departure.

Several international gatherings have already been postponed.

The 12th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization in Geneva, scheduled for Nov. 30 through Dec. 3, was postponed indefinitely because of travel restrictions imposed in response to the latest variant.

“Given these unfortunate developments and the uncertainty that they cause, we see no alternative but to propose to postpone the Ministerial Conference and reconvene it as soon as possible when conditions allow,” Ambassador Dacio Castillo, chair of the General Council, said during an emergency meeting of the council. “I trust that you will fully appreciate the seriousness of the situation.”

The World Muslim Communities Council also postponed its international conference, scheduled for Dec. 12 to 14, in the United Arab Emirates because of Omicron.

The African Development Bank, a multinational financial institution, postponed its Dec. 1-3 investment forum in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, because of travel restrictions, the bank’s president said Monday.

“In life, man plans and proposes and God disposes,” bank President Akinwumi Adesina said in a news briefing, noting that the variant has made travel “very, very difficult.”

The new restrictions come less than a month after the U.S. eased limits on travel into the country by foreigners, a move that leaders of the badly pummeled travel industries praised. Long-haul, international travel normally generates the lion’s share of revenue for air carriers.

The dangers of the Omicron COVID-19 variant are unknown. But many Americans aren’t very worried.

Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of the U.S. Travel Assn., a trade group for the nation’s travel industries, criticized the Biden administration’s decision to impose new bans on travel from eight African countries so soon after opening the U.S. borders.

“COVID variants are of concern, but closed borders have not prevented their presence in the United States while vaccinations have proven incredibly durable,” she said in a statement issued Sunday.

Fitch Ratings, the credit rating company, on Tuesday revised its global forecast downward, saying the arrival of new COVID-19 variants is likely to make the recovery of global air travel less certain.

“While it is too early to assess the effects of the Omicron [variant], additional waves of infections and policy responses could lead to travel restrictions and stalled or temporary declines in traffic,” Fitch said in a statement.

Still, concern over the variant hasn’t yet affected domestic travel, according to the Adobe Digital Economy Index, which measures booking transactions at six airlines and activity on millions of website visits.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, online bookings for domestic flights increased 1% compared with the seven previous days, with a majority of the flights scheduled for trips in the next two months, according to Adobe.

At the Airline Passenger Experience Assn. expo in Long Beach, several airline executives spoke out against new travel restrictions in response to the variant, saying that restrictions do little to stop the spread of the virus.

“Closing borders doesn’t help,” said Tammy McKnight, chief medical officer for WestJet, the second-largest airline in Canada. She urged governments to instead rely more heavily on testing travelers to keep the variant in check.


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