Governors continue to open indoor dining and other activities before vaccinations become widespread. Experts warn this could create superspreading playgrounds for dangerous variants and squander our best shot at getting the pandemic under control.
Caroline Chen ProPublica Feb. 6 2021, 5 a.m. EST
On Jan. 29, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was promoting “marital bliss” at a coronavirus news conference.
Announcing that indoor dining would reopen at 25% capacity in New York City on Valentine’s Day, and wedding receptions could also resume with up to 150 people a month after, Cuomo suggested: “You propose on Valentine’s Day and then you can have the wedding ceremony March 15, up to 150 people. People will actually come to your wedding because you can tell them, with the testing, it will be safe. … No pressure, but it’s just an idea.”
Cuomo isn’t alone in taking measures to loosen pandemic-related restrictions. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer allowed indoor dining to resume at 25% capacity starting Feb. 1. Idaho Gov. Brad Little increased limits on indoor gatherings from 10 to 50 people. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker is raising business capacity from 25% to 40%, including at restaurants and gyms. California Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted stay-at-home orders on Jan. 25.
To justify their reopening decisions, governors point to falling case counts. “We make decisions based on facts,” Cuomo said. “New York City numbers are down.”
But epidemiologists and public health experts say a crucial factor is missing from these calculations: the threat of new viral variants. One coronavirus variant, which originated in the United Kingdom and is now spreading in the U.S., is believed to be 50% more transmissible. The more cases there are, the faster new variants can spread. Because the baseline of case counts in the U.S. is already so high — we’re still averaging about 130,000 new cases a day — and because the spread of the virus grows exponentially, cases could easily climb past the 300,000-per-day peak we reached in early January if we underestimate the variants, experts said.
Furthermore, study after study has identified indoor spaces — particularly restaurants, where consistent masking is not possible — as some of the highest-risk locations for transmission to occur. Even with distanced tables, case studies have shown that droplets can travel long distances within dining establishments, sometimes helped along by air conditioning.
We’re just in the opening stage of the new variants’ arrival in the United States. Experts say we could speed viruses’ spread by providing them with superspreading playgrounds or slow them down by starving them of opportunities to replicate.
“We’re standing at an inflection point,” said Sam Scarpino, assistant professor at Northeastern University and director of the school’s Emergent Epidemics Lab. Thanks to the arrival of vaccines, he said, “we finally have the chance right now to bring this back under control, but if we ease up now, we may end up wasting all the effort we put in.”
Dr. Luciana Borio, an infectious disease physician who was a member of the Biden-Harris transition team’s COVID-19 advisory board, put it more bluntly at a congressional hearing on Feb. 3. “Our worst days could be ahead of us,” she said.
I interviewed 10 scientists for this story and was surprised by the vehemence of some of their language. “Are you sure it could be that bad?” I asked, over and over.
They unanimously said they expected B.1.1.7, the variant first discovered in the U.K., to eventually become the dominant version of coronavirus in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that B.1.1.7 will become dominant in March, using a model that presumes it’s 50% more transmissible than the original “wildtype” coronavirus. The model’s transmission rate was based on experience in the U.K., which first detected B.1.1.7 in September and saw an increase in cases that became apparent in December, straining hospitals despite stringent closures and stay-at-home orders. So while our country appears relatively B.1.1.7-free right now, the situation could look drastically different in a matter of months.
Experts are particularly concerned because we don’t have a handle on exactly how far B.1.1.7 has spread. Our current surveillance system sequences less than 1% of cases to see whether they are a variant.
Throwing an even more troubling wrench into the mix is that B.1.1.7 is continuing to morph. Just this week, scientists discovered that some B.1.1.7 coronaviruses in Britain had picked up a key change, known as the E484K mutation. That mutation had previously been found in the B.1.351 variant, which was first discovered in South Africa. Scientists have hypothesized that it’s the E484K mutation that has reduced the efficacy of some vaccines in South African trials, so this is incredibly worrying news.
“It’s really hard to thread this needle without sounding like a prophet of doom,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security. While vaccines bring hope, she said, governors who are moving to expand indoor dining are “completely reckless”; if they don’t course correct, “I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say the worst could be yet to come.”
The choices that our federal and state leaders make right at this moment will determine if we can bend the curve once and for all and start ending the pandemic, or if we ride the rollercoaster into yet another surge, this one fueled by a viral enemy harder to fight than ever before.
All of us have agency in deciding this narrative, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stressed. “Certainly you need to be prepared for the possibility that things might get worse in the light of the variants, but that is not inevitable because there are things that we can do to mitigate against it,” he said in an interview. “We're not helpless observers of our own fate."
Fauci urged states to “double down on your public health measures … to have virtually everybody wear masks, to have everyone maintain social distance, to have everybody avoid congregate settings, and to have everybody wash their hands very frequently.”
And don’t wait until it’s too late, warned Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
“We are so good at pumping the brakes after we’ve wrapped the car around the tree,” he said. The new variants aren’t being complacent. “There’s still a lot of human wood out there for this coronavirus to burn.”
To understand the epidemiologists’ warnings, it helps to understand what variants are, how they have been behaving and our limitations in knowing exactly how far they have spread.
People have a bad habit of anthropomorphizing the coronavirus: ascribing human-like intentions to it, as if a microbe can discern that we finally have a vaccine and try to evade it. But viruses don’t really have any schemes; they just reproduce. “Coronaviruses are a single strand of RNA in a sac of fat,” epidemiologist Larry Brilliant reminded me. “They’re preprogrammed to replicate and continue replicating. That’s their job.”
Once in a while, when a virus replicates, a mistake occurs, and a letter in the strand of RNA is copied inaccurately. That’s called a mutation. Many times, those mutations are neutral. Sometimes they are detrimental to the virus, and that lineage will quickly die off. Other times, they’re beneficial to the virus in some way, such as by making it more transmissible. When a version of the virus becomes functionally different, that’s when scientists consider it a variant.
As of Feb. 4, according to the CDC, the U.S. has found 611 cases of B.1.1.7, the variant first discovered in the United Kingdom, five cases of B.1.351, first identified in South Africa, and two cases of P.1., first identified in Brazil. But that’s almost certainly an undercount.
Part of the reason why epidemiologists are advocating for us to stay hunkered down is because the U.S. doesn’t know exactly where all the variant cases are.
The term that public health uses is “surveillance.” I like to think of it as having eyes on the virus. In order to have good eyes on where coronavirus infections are in general, all you need is the regular swab tests that we’re all familiar with. But in order to tell whether a positive case is the wildtype coronavirus or one of the more nasty variants, an additional step is needed: genomic sequencing. For that, the sample needs to be sent on to a lab that has specialized machinery capable of conducting sequencing.
Until recently, sequencing in the U.S. was a patchwork effort, conducted by a mix of academic and public health agency labs keen to track the evolution of the coronavirus. Though the CDC hosted a weekly call where those scientists already conducting sequencing could compare notes, there was no dedicated federal funding or coordination to ensure that samples were routinely gathered from across the country.
Today, the U.S. sequences less than 1% of its total cases. This is a pittance compared to the U.K., which sequences around 8-10% of its positive test results. But volume alone isn’t the only thing that matters. Representation, meaning where the samples come from, is another crucial factor. Since most of the sequencing so far has come from voluntary efforts, the U.S. has suffered from uneven visibility, with a whole bunch of eyeballs in parts of the country that are biotechnology and academic hubs, like Boston, San Francisco and San Diego, and less in “surveillance deserts” like North and South Dakota. There, barely any samples have been sequenced at all, even when those states had explosions of COVID-19 cases.
Dr. Phil Febbo is chief medical officer at Illumina, one of the world’s biggest sequencing technology companies. Like so many parts of the coronavirus response, keeping a lookout for variants has suffered from a lack of federal leadership, Febbo said. As early as March of last year, Illumina representatives began meeting with federal agencies, advocating for a national genomic surveillance system.
“We talked to any three-lettered agency we could,” Febbo said. “Those conversations were cordial: They said they heard what we were saying, but then they’d say, ‘But we need more tests, but can you do it in five minutes, can it be point-of-care?’” It wasn’t until Dec. 18, when B.1.1.7 was taking off in the United Kingdom, that Illumina finally got a call from the CDC offering to sign a contract with the company. (Since December, CDC has engaged Illumina to do surveillance work by signing two contracts potentially worth up to $4.6 million.)
Today, Illumina sequences positive samples that are passed on from a diagnostic testing company, Helix. Each RNA strand of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has about 30,000 nucleotides, each represented by one of four letters. Illumina’s sequencers read through each sample’s code and compare each letter to a reference sequence, looking for significant changes. The data gets passed back to the CDC, which uses location data stripped of personal identifiers to map the spread of any variants that Illumina has picked up.
The CDC said it has contracted with several large commercial companies with the goal of sequencing up to 6,000 samples a week by mid-February. Through another program, called the National SARS-CoV-2 Strain Surveillance System, state public health labs are supposed to send a total of 1,500 samples to the agency every other week. This program went into effect on Jan. 25 and is still ramping up, according to a CDC spokesperson.
Febbo says more can be done to increase surveillance. He notes that the Biden administration, while clearly more invested in variant surveillance than the Trump administration, hasn’t set a public target in the same way it has for vaccinations with its “100 million shots” campaign. Illumina estimates that sequencing 5% of all samples would allow us to be confident that we are catching all variants of concern, and he would like the Biden administration to make that a public goal. It can be done, Febbo says: “It hasn’t been the lack of capacity, it’s been the lack of will.”
Having clearer information about where variants are would give governors and local officials actual information with which to make decisions. Then they could say with confidence, “We can open indoor dining because we know that the variants aren’t circulating in our community.” Absent that information, the only thing we can do is act like the variants are here.
The good news is that so far, the vaccines that have been made available to the public appear to be reasonably effective against the coronavirus variants. They may be slightly less effective against B.1.351, the variant discovered in South Africa, but none of the variants are total “escapes,” so a vaccine should offer you at least partial protection against any form of the coronavirus you encounter.
All of the available shots give your immune system some familiarity with the virus, allowing it to be more prepared to meet the bug in the wild, whether it’s the original strain or a variant. Having a savvier immune system, in turn, means that even if you do get infected, you’re less likely to need to be hospitalized, and less likely to die.
“Regardless of what’s happening with this variant, we’re much better with [people’s immune systems] seeing SARS-CoV-2 after seeing the vaccine than not,” said Derek Cummings, a biology professor at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute.
However, we’re not very far along with vaccinations yet. As of Feb. 4, only 2.1% of the U.S. population had been reported to have received both doses of the vaccine; 8.5% had received one dose. That means we’re in a precarious moment right now where the vast majority of the U.S. hasn’t had a chance to get protected, and the variants have a window to multiply. (Of course, those who have already gotten sick with COVID-19 have natural immunity, but some scientists are concerned that those who develop only mild symptoms may not gain as much innate immunity as those who receive a vaccine.)
Of the scientists I talked to, Caitlin Rivers, a computational epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, was the most optimistic about a potential variant-fueled surge. “I do think that B.1.1.7 has the possibility to precipitate a wave, but it probably won’t be as bad as the last wave, because we have a lot of preexisting immunity and we are rolling out the vaccines,” she said. Thanks to the vaccines, the U.S. will have more population immunity by March, when the CDC predicts B.1.1.7 will become dominant, than the U.K. did when the variant hit there late last year. “It’s a low likelihood that we will have a gigantic fourth wave, but not impossible,” she said.
Still, Rivers said, “now is not the time to relax.” She, too, was critical of state policies to loosen restrictions. “When you create the same conditions that allowed the last surge, you should expect the same results,” she said. “Our main move should be to reduce transmission as much as possible while we vaccinate as much as possible.”
Time is not on our side, as the morphing B.1.1.7 variant showed us when it picked up the E484K mutation. While we are lucky that our vaccines still work against the current variants, we have to keep in mind that in this race between vaccines and variants, the variants aren’t staying static.
The big fear is that eventually, a variant will come along that provides the virus with a complete immune escape, preventing our vaccines from working against it. Even though we can update our vaccines, that would take time. The only way to guarantee that the virus won’t mutate into a variant that our current vaccines don’t cover is to lower transmission significantly, said genomic epidemiologist Alli Black: “The virus will continue to mutate as it continues to spread. We’re not going to stop that biological fact unless transmission stops.” And vaccinating everyone quickly is one key way to make it harder for the coronavirus to get from person to person in the first place.
“We need to start responding like the variants are going to take over and they are one of the biggest threats,” said Cummings, “or we won’t have vaccinated enough people when this rolls through.”
Throughout this pandemic, the U.S. has often been in the fortunate position of not being first when it comes to novel viral encounters. We weren’t the country where SARS-CoV-2 originated. We weren’t the place where B.1.1.7 was spawned. We’ve had the opportunity to look to other countries and learn from them, if only we’d choose to.
Epidemiologist after epidemiologist pointed out that the U.K., Denmark and Portugal required drastic measures — the dreaded L word, “lockdown” — to get B.1.1.7 under control. “We’ve seen that multiple different countries in Europe have had to close schools after making it a policy that schools would be the last to close,” Rivers, from Johns Hopkins, noted.
If we don’t want the same fate to befall the U.S., now is the time to act, the scientists urged.
Improving surveillance can help. Utah Public Health Laboratory has a robust state sequencing program, analyzing a random sample of cases sent by the state’s two largest hospital groups. Kelly Oakeson, its chief scientist for next generation sequencing and bioinformatics, has set a goal of sequencing 10% of all cases in the state; his lab is currently doing about 3%. They could do more, he said. The only problem is that they don’t have enough pipette tips due to a national shortage. Oakeson said he’s hoping that the Biden administration will leverage the Defense Production Act to produce more pipette tips so he can increase his state’s surveillance capabilities.
“We can’t get transmission down through vaccination alone,” said Rasmussen, the Georgetown virologist. “We need to be encouraging leadership, both at the state and federal levels, to protect people, to have paid sick leave for people if they become symptomatic.”
A restaurant server in New York City, who was laid off early in the pandemic from a high-end steakhouse, told me he understood what the epidemiologists were saying from a scientific point of view. But, he asked, “if you want to shut everything down, who’s going to pay the bills?”
He continued, “In order to do what the epidemiologists want to get done, you can only do that with policies to support the people and make it worth their while to do it.” He’s job hunting, and he said that if he was offered a position that put him indoors on Valentine’s Day, “I would have to take it.” He’d put on a double mask and go to work.
Whenever we have options, though, individual decisions can make a difference. Black, the genomic epidemiologist, encouraged everyone to limit travel as much as possible: “It just really facilitates introductions of these circulating variants.”
Hang in there, urged Scarpino, the Northeastern professor, painting a hopeful picture: “Cases are coming down, vaccines are going up. Let’s pretend that politicians wake up and don’t reopen restaurants and we avoid a big wave in March. Then we’re running downhill on the vaccines because the pipeline gets better and better. Then we can get our lives back.”
That sounded so tantalizing. Dream-worthy. Just a matter of good science-based public policy and collective compliance driving down the case counts until those little mindless RNA-filled fat sacs have nowhere to go, no one to infect, no way to replicate, no chances to mutate. I imagine them bumping around, lost without crowded indoor spaces to breed in, thwarted by vaccine-boosted immune cells, unable to find a host, dwindling, going, gone.
Maps are being overhauled to reflect new demand.
Bloomberg: February 8, 2021, 6:52 AM AST
There were 13,600 passenger flights around the globe on April 25, 2020—the lowest recorded number during the pandemic. It was an 86% drop in traffic compared to a few months earlier, according to travel analytics company Cirium. There was nowhere to go but up, up, and away.
And yet, nine months later, Cirium estimates that 30% of the global commercial airplanes remain in storage. OAG, another aviation data and analytics company, reported that seat capacity remained at 50% in January 2021, compared with a year earlier. And new estimates from the International Air Transport Association show that recovery will be slower than expected; rather than seeing a 50% rebound by the end of 2021, as previously anticipated, the trade body is now looking at a worst-case scenario of 13% improvement in passenger traffic, compared to 2020 figures.
As a result, airlines are getting scrappy, shifting operations to wherever there may be demand. The CliffsNotes version: Leisure is in, business travel is out. But much like a rewritten route map, the ramifications for consumers span far and wide.
Fewer connections, more sun
Leisure travel has showed early signs of a comeback, with summer and holiday travel spikes. Business travel, on the other hand, may be permanently curtailed by Zoom; such prominent thinkers as Bill Gates forecast that business travel will permanently drop by 50%. In response, says Henry Harteveldt, president of aviation consulting firm Atmosphere Research Group, airlines are shifting away from business routes that connect big cities and toward leisure routes that bring on sunshine.
United, Delta, and American airlines all cut service to London, for instance—be it from New York, San Francisco, or Washington. Also slashed: once-common direct flights from U.S. hubs to Frankfurt, Tokyo, Sydney, and Sao Paulo. “Given the lack of business demand, we’re focusing on leisure travel and providing more service for customers traveling to visit family and friends,” says American Airlines’ vice president of network planning, Brian Znotins.
There’s an upside for U.S. leisure travelers: fewer connections. “Point to point” routes, which bypass the typical “hub-and-spoke” connections in big airports by directly connecting smaller destinations, would not have been profitable before the pandemic. But these days, connections are especially onerous and convenience is king, says Paul Tumpowsky, founder and chief executive officer of high-end travel agency Skylark.
Those departing from such secondary cities as Boston, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis will find more direct flights than ever—particularly if they’re going to warmer outposts in Florida such as Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Orlando, Key West, and Tampa.
Why the Florida mania?
“Everything we do stems from demand,” says Ankit Gupta, United’s vice president for domestic network planning. “The sunshine states are seeing much more travel demand than before, on a relative basis, while it evaporated in the Northeast.”
Another spot experiencing extreme demand is Los Cabos, Mexico, says Tumpowsky. Whereas nonstop flights from the Northeast used to operate only a few times a week, American, Delta, and United have each added several weekly flights from New York to Baja California this winter. Other places to look for new ease of access: Hawaii (United is soon to launch nonstops to Kona from Chicago), Guatemala City (JetBlue is adding service from New York), and the Caribbean (Delta has restored nearly all of its pre-Covid routes).
International route roulette
Before the pandemic, American Airlines peddled such seasonal routes such as Philadelphia-Dubrovnik, Croatia, and Charlotte, N.C.-Munich. United was operating nonstop flights to secondary international destinations such as Chengdu, China; Naples, Italy; and Porto, Portugal. Don’t expect those to come back anytime soon, says Patrick Quayle, United’s vice president of international network and alliances. Even when borders reopen, ongoing (and constantly changing) entry requirements that range from quarantines to vaccine passports will continue to suppress demand and complicate operations in long-haul leisure markets.
A bright spot is emerging, though: Diaspora travel, in which U.S. citizens seek to reconnect with relatives in their original countries, has been a growing source of bookings for both Covid-era and post-pandemic travel.
In May, United will have all-new service between its hub at Washington Dulles and Accra, Ghana, with Lagos, Nigeria, to follow at a future date, plus a new link between San Francisco and Bangalore, India, in June. (Not only is San Francisco a tech powerhouse, like Bangalore—it’s in the U.S. state with the largest population originating in India.) American Airlines, meanwhile, is adding service from New York to Tel Aviv in May, while Delta hopes to resume flights from Atlanta and New York to Lagos and Accra, respectively, this summer.
Bottom of Form
The trend extends beyond the U.S. “Rebuilding our network [has been] driven in large part by demand of diasporas wanting to return home amid the pandemic, whether temporarily or permanently,” says a Qatar Airways spokesperson, referring to new flights from Doha, Qatar, to San Francisco and Seattle. That can open additional doors for the airline, says Harteveldt. While rival international carriers pull back, Qatar can leverage this pocket of demand to gain market share, increase long-term awareness of its brand, and even pursue lucrative cargo-carrying deals.
When to look, and when to book?
Savvy travelers can use this opportunity to score convenient flights at great prices—but they may encounter potential pitfalls. Average airfares for round-trip domestic flights in the U.S. have dropped from 25% to 34% year-over-year in the past several months, according to Airlines Reporting Corp. In its quarterly travel recovery index on airfare pricing, airfare prediction app Hopper projects airfares to remain 12% cheaper, both domestically and internationally, through the summer, with the best deals evaporating by the end of February.
“There’s an opportunity for travelers right now,” says Scott Keyes, founder of the popular airfare search site Scott’s Cheap Flights, pointing to flexible cancellation policies and fee waivers as reasons to forge ahead with plans, even if they’re likely to evolve. “Book now,” he advises. “Once more people are vaccinated and willing to travel, the deals are likely to dry up.”
Yet it may take a while before prices fully return to pre-pandemic levels. As long as corporate travel is suppressed, says Keyes, price-sensitive leisure fliers will be able to put downward pressure on airfares.
Then there are potential fare wars. After Hawaii enacted pre-trip testing protocols in October, airlines rushed to reclaim their slots at airports throughout the state to compete for the business. “Whereas normal flights from the West Coast to Hawaii cost around $500,” says Keyes, “you can now regularly find $198 round-trips from Los Angeles, and record low fares from Chicago, Dallas, and Phoenix.”
That could change at any minute. “Airlines are becoming much more data-sensitive,” says Skylark’s Tumpowsky, adding that prices react to quick consumer shifts in real time, rather than a strict 120 days in advance of departures. This means that everything—not just route availability and price, but also specific schedules—can shift day-to-day.
Take additional precautions when booking brand-new routes, which can be tweaked or delayed. “One month out, the schedule is 100% accurate,” advises United’s Quayle. Flights that are currently operating and continuously listed on the schedule for at least a few weeks are also considered safe bets. “As these things evolve,” Quayle says, “we’re learning.”
Average booking prices for summer 2021 are up 20% over summer 2019 despite major uncertainties around travel, says TUI.
The operator is still planning to operate 80% of its summer 2019 capacity, it said in a first quarter trading update given on February 9th.
So far, it has sold 2.8 million summer holidays, which is only around 56% of its sales in the same period two years ago.
It took just €468.1m in bookings for the three months to the end of December compared to €3.85 bn the previous year.
But CEO Fritz Joussen said it was expected that customers will book summer holidays much later this year than in normal years.
"However, demand remains strong, people want to travel - this is shown by the already good number of bookings for the summer," he added.
TUI lost €698.6 million in the first quarter, €551.9m more than the first quarter of 2019/2020. But it said it had managed to reduce its monthly cash outflow from an estimated €400 to €450 million a month to around €300 million a month.
And after completing a third coronavirus financing package for €1.8 billion in the last week of January, the company has €2.1 bn in cash and cash equivalents. The refinancing package included a rights issue to provide the Group with around €500 million. Also, the Mordashov family, Russian billionaires who were already strategic shareholders in TUI, increased their shareholding to 30.1%.
In its trading update, TUI said it is 'prepared for a relaunch of its tourism business in the coming weeks', adding: "With the approval of highly effective vaccines, more vaccinations and reliable and widely available rapid tests, the groundwork has been laid for a return to basic freedoms and also open borders."
The English market 'has a special significance'
Mr Joussen "We see an impressive pace and ambitious targets for vaccinations there. Vaccinations and rapid tests make an end to the standstill in tourism possible. I am hopeful that after a slow start, more energy is now being put on vaccination and the availability of rapid tests in other countries. We should do everything we can to quickly return to basic freedoms and make travel possible again. A look at the historically high savings rate in the EU also underlines that the scope for consumer spending is high. The significant increase in spending on booked travel reflects this very clearly.
He continued “Holidaymakers are catching up and are willing to pay more for their holidays. Great Britain is economically a very important and large market for TUI. There, the vaccination campaign is progressing very rapidly; according to current plans, all Britons over 50 years of age are to receive a vaccination offer by the beginning of May.
"By mid-July, 75 per cent of the population there should have been vaccinated, so that herd immunity is achieved. This will have an immediate impact on the booking and travel behaviour of Britons for the summer of 2021. It also gives hope that the other European countries important to TUI will also be able to accelerate their vaccination strategies."
Rapid tests 'should replace quarantine'
Mr Joussen said rapid tests would play an important role in the transition period.
"With uniform and reliable regulations on rapid tests, we can leave quarantine obligations and closed borders behind us," he said.
"Rapid testing instead of quarantine is a demand of the travel industry, to which TUI also adheres."
He said TUI packages offered one of the safest forms of travel, adding that since it resumed operations last summer it had registered a total of 364 Covid-19 cases among more than 2.5 million guests.
IATA Director General Alexandre de Juniac made the following remarks during a media briefing to the leaders of the global tourism sector on the pandemic in 2021:
International passenger demand was down by 75%, domestic demand by nearly half.
Air cargo fared better with the decline limited to 10%. That is making it a revenue lifeline for many airlines and routes.
But the overall point to make on 2020 is that it saw the biggest fall in demand ever. And any recovery stalled in November.
Our forecast is for traffic to return to half of 2019 levels in 2021. But the proliferation of restrictions on travel that we have seen since the beginning of the year could make even that modest outlook very challenging. Brian’s “variant” scenario demonstrates how the downside risk to the forecast could limit recovery to 38% of 2019 levels. That would make a tough year even tougher.
Call for Partnerships
In the face of these new restrictions, our call for a partnership with governments is even more essential. There will be a turning point in this crisis. And it’s important to be prepared for it.
I don’t think that anyone foresees a world free from COVID-19 anytime soon. Certainly not in the next months or even within this year. But our ability to manage the risk is increasing as more people get vaccinated and testing capacity expands.
Eventually, we will be at a point where these and other measures give governments the reassurance that the risk of re-starting our lives—including travel—is tolerable, recognizing also the significant social and economic benefits that are at stake. We are eager to work with governments as partners to understand what the benchmarks and conditions will be for a decision to give people back their freedom of movement.
Why are we so eager for a plan? So that we don’t lose a minute in re-connecting the world when it is safe to do so. A functioning aviation industry will add vital momentum to the economic recovery. Indeed, without aviation, a recovery is likely not possible. We have all seen far too many stories of the terrible job losses and human suffering across the travel and tourism sector. So-called “staycations” and local tourism are not the answer. Only aviation will be able to energize a recovery.
Some governments have already responded positively to a partnership with industry.
In the UK, for example, we are working with the local airline association to provide a recommended framework. And this was at the invitation of the government—a very positive sign that the approach of the partnership will deliver significant value.
In the US, IATA represents the international airlines in the Biden Administration’s almost daily interagency consultations on COVID measures.
And in Latin America, today we will announce an agreement with the Government of Panama and Copa Airlines to partner with us in trialing the IATA Travel Pass. This marks the first airline in the Americas to pilot the program and the first government worldwide to publicly support it. The trial is set to commence in March on selected flights on Copa from the carrier’s hub in Panama City.
In the meantime, airlines remain in a struggle for survival. In the last few days, we have seen thousands of airline staff in the US receive the difficult news that their jobs could disappear on 1 April when the current wage subsidy ends.
Relief packages have been a vital lifeline for airlines around the world. Governments have stepped up with $200 billion to help keep the industry viable. But even this staggering amount will not see the industry through if we have severe travel restrictions well into 2021. More will be needed.
There is no single formula for the aid that is needed. But what is critically important is that governments understand the specific situation of the airlines in their market and provide the appropriate support—support that does not increase already high debt levels. And this message also goes out to regional funding mechanisms in the developing world. Where governments don’t have the resources, international funding organizations such as development banks may need to step in.
February 5, 2021: Bloomberg
It’s not working out that way.
For a start, it isn’t clear the vaccines actually stop travelers spreading the disease, even if they’re less likely to catch it themselves. Neither are the shots proven against the more-infectious mutant strains that have startled governments from Australia to the U.K. into closing, rather than opening, borders. An ambitious push by carriers for digital health passports to replace the mandatory quarantines killing travel demand is also fraught with challenges and has yet to win over the World Health Organization.
This bleak reality has pushed back expectations of any meaningful recovery in global travel to 2022. That may be too late to save the many airlines with only a few months of cash remaining. And the delay threatens to kill the careers of hundreds of thousands of pilots, flight crew and airport workers who’ve already been out of work for close to a year. Rather than a return to worldwide connectivity -- one of the economic miracles of the jet era -- prolonged international isolation appears unavoidable.
“It’s very important for people to understand that at the moment, all we know about the vaccines is that they will very effectively reduce your risk of severe disease,” said Margaret Harris, a WHO spokesperson in Geneva. “We haven’t seen any evidence yet indicating whether or not they stop transmission.”
Long-Haul Travel May Not Get Going Until 2023
WATCH VIDEO The global airline industry is not expected to see any meaningful recovery for a few years despite the rollouts of Covd-19 vaccines. Angus Whitley reports.
To be sure, it’s possible a travel rebound will happen on its own -- without the need for vaccine passports. Should jabs start to drive down infection and death rates, governments might gain enough confidence to roll back quarantines and other border curbs, and rely more on passengers’ pre-flight Covid-19 tests.
The United Arab Emirates, for example, has largely done away with entry restrictions, other than the need for a negative test. While U.K. regulators banned Ryanair’s “Jab & Go” ad as misleading, the discount airline’s chief Michael O’Leary still expects almost the entire population of Europe to be inoculated by the end of September. “That’s the point where we are released from these restrictions,” he said. “Short-haul travel will recover strongly and quickly.”
For now though, governments broadly remain skittish about welcoming international visitors and rules change at the slightest hint of trouble. Witness Australia, which slammed shut its borders with New Zealand last month after New Zealand reported one Covid-19 case in the community.
New Zealand and Australia, which have pursued a successful approach aimed at eliminating the virus, have both said their borders won’t fully open this year. Travel bubbles, meanwhile, such as one proposed between the Asian financial hubs of Singapore and Hong Kong, have yet to take hold. France on Sunday tightened rules on international travel while Canada is preparing to impose tougher quarantine measures.
“Air traffic and aviation is really way down the priority list for governments,” said Phil Seymour, president and head of advisory at U.K-based aviation services firm IBA Group Ltd. “It’s going to be a long haul out of this.”
The pace of vaccine rollouts is another sticking point.
While the rate of vaccinations has improved in the U.S. -- the world’s largest air-travel market before the virus struck -- inoculation programs have been far from aviation’s panacea. In some places, they’re just one more thing for people to squabble about. Vaccine nationalism in Europe has dissolved into a rows over supply and who should be protected first. The region is also fractured over whether a jab should be a ticket to unrestricted travel.
It all means a rebound in passenger air traffic “is probably a 2022 thing,” according to Joshua Ng, Singapore-based director at Alton Aviation Consultancy. Long-haul travel may not properly resume until 2023 or 2024, he predicts. The International Air Transport Association said this week that in a worst-case scenario, passenger traffic may only improve by 13% this year. Its official forecast for a 50% rebound was issued in December.
American Airlines Group Inc. on Wednesday warned 13,000 employees they could be laid off, many of them for the second time in six months.
At the end of 2020 “we fully believed that we would be looking at a summer schedule where we’d fly all of our airplanes and need the full strength of our team,” Chief Executive Officer Doug Parker and President Robert Isom told workers. “Regrettably, that is no longer the case.”
The lack of progress is clear in the skies. Commercial flights worldwide as of Feb. 1 wallowed at less than half pre-pandemic levels, according to OAG Aviation Worldwide Ltd. Scheduled services in major markets including the U.K., Brazil, Spain are still falling, the data show.
Persistent Flight Slump
Services in major markets remain way below pre-pandemic levels.
Scheduled seats in week of February 1 2021 compared with same week a year earlier
Quarantines that lock up passengers upon arrival for weeks on end remain the great enemy of a real travel rebound. A better alternative, according to IATA, is a digital Travel Pass to store passengers’ vaccine and testing histories, allowing restrictions to be lifted. Many of the world’s largest airlines have rolled out apps from IATA and others, including Singapore Airlines Ltd., Emirates and British Airways.
“We need to be working on as many options as possible,” said Richard Treeves, British Airways’ head of business resilience. “We’re hopeful for integration on those apps and common standards.”
But even IATA recognizes there’s no guarantee every state will adopt its Travel Pass right away, if at all. There’s currently no consensus on vaccine passports within the 27-member European Union, with tourism-dependent countries like Greece and Portugal backing the idea and bigger members including France pushing back.
“We’re going to have a lack of harmony at the beginning,” Nick Careen, IATA’s senior vice president for passenger matters, said at a briefing last month. “None of it is ideal.”
The number of digital vaccine trackers has mushroomed
American, British Airways
Singapore Air, Emirates, Qatar, British Airways
Lufthansa, JetBlue, United, Virgin Atlantic
The airline group has called on the WHO to determine that it is safe for inoculated people to fly without quarantining, in a bid to bolster the case for Travel Pass. But the global health body remains unmoved.
“At this point, all we can do is say, yes, you were vaccinated on this date with this vaccine and you had your booster -- if it’s a two-course vaccine -- on this date,” the WHO’s Harris said. “We’re working very hard to get a secure electronic system so people have that information. But at this point, that’s all it is. It’s a record.”
A vaccine passport wouldn’t be able to demonstrate the quality or durability of any protective immunity gleaned from being inoculated, or from being infected with virus naturally, either, Harris said.
“The idea that your natural immunity should be protective and that you could somehow use this as a way of saying ‘I’m good to travel’ is out completely.”
Doubts around vaccines mean aviation’s top priority should be a standardized testing regime, said IBA’s Seymour. This might involve a coronavirus test 72 hours before departure, 24 hours of isolation on arrival, and then another test before being released.
“If this was the world standard, then I think we would all be prepared to start picking holidays and fly away,” he said.
A second wave of coronavirus infections threatens to upend a tourism boom in Dubai that provided salve to its battered economy, although with so few places open globally its hospitality sector hopes tourists will keep coming.
Dubai, one of the few destinations open to international travellers since July, has yet to impose the toughest restrictions after record daily infections in the UAE, in the hope that vaccinations will spare a repeat of last year's lockdown.
But after a rush of visitors during December, hotel chain RIU saw a "significant slowdown" in January bookings in Dubai after some countries tightened entry restrictions for those travelling from the UAE, said Oliver Kluth, SVP Sales & Business Development Indian Ocean.
British and Israeli tourists largely disappeared from the city's sandy beaches after the United Kingdom and Israel demanded those coming from the Gulf state to quarantine.
Denmark - then Britain - suspended flights from the UAE.
The moves came as daily infections tripled over the past month to hit a record 3,966 on Jan. 28 in the UAE, which is now battling its biggest outbreak since the pandemic begun.
The Gulf state does not give a breakdown for each emirate, but some doctors told Reuters that private hospitals in Dubai were admitting sick patients for the first time in months.
Along with mandatory mask-wearing in public and social distancing, Dubai has further restricted capacity at restaurants and social gatherings and banned live entertainment.
It also limited hotel and shopping centre capacity and reinstated a requirement for all incoming passengers to take a test to prove they are virus-free.
'I CAN LIVE AGAIN'
The number of visitors began to taper off in early January, some bar and restaurant owners said, although that may be linked to the end of the peak winter travel season rather than the rising level of infections.
And tourists and residents are still hitting Dubai's sandy beaches, desert camps, clubs and restaurants ahead of the heat and humidity of summer.
Reuters spoke to 10 tourists from the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Belarus, Turkey and Egypt, who all said they felt relatively safe in Dubai.
"Everything is closed in Paris. We have to come back home at 6 p.m., but here there is no curfew. So it's very nice to enjoy the coffee, restaurants and entertainment," said Khaled Kadi, 37, an insurance broker from Paris.
Anna, a 35-year-old Italian, who recently left Dubai for London, has returned to work remotely over the next few months and spend time with her partner who lives in the emirate.
"I feel like I can live again because when I was in London for two months we were in lockdown, like very strict lockdown. So we could barely go out," she said.
And with few destinations open to international travellers, bars and clubs are optimistic Dubai will remain popular.
"Mostly European tourists are coming here and they want to escape the lockdown, they want a bit of normal life," said Nikki Beach Resort & Spa Dubai General Manager Hanna Azzi.
"There is nowhere else to go," said Charlie Weaving, managing partner at LIVIT Hospitality, which operates popular Dubai beach club Cove.
But if more countries suspend flights from the UAE, it will deal a major blow to Dubai as it prepares to host the postponed Expo 2020 world fair.
Dubai's government media office did not respond to questions on its strategy to address the new coronavirus wave.
The emirate's economic recovery will be "put on ice" if the number of cases continues to rise and tougher measures are put in place, said Capital Economics' Middle East economist James Swanston.
Airbnb has published its latest US-focused report detailing how it expects travel to return in 2021 and highlighting how there will be a shift towards more meaningful travel in a bid to limit mass tourism post-vaccine rollout.
According to the report, US consumers will prioritise spending as much time as possible with their family and friends if they can get vaccinated, and the platform emphasised its commitment to providing safe environments for its guest and host community.
Airbnb co-founder and CEO, Brian Chesky, wrote: “Once people feel safe to travel, they will, but it will look different than before the pandemic. Travel will be viewed as an antidote to isolation and disconnection. People don’t generally miss landmarks, crowded shuttles, and lines and lobbies packed with tourists.
“Mass travel is really just a different form of isolation—you are anonymous, herded around with other travellers, never really experiencing the people and culture of a community. What people want from travel now is what they’ve been deprived of—spending meaningful time with their family and friends,” he added.
About this report: This US travel report is based on findings derived from public opinion research conducted in late December 2020 and select insights from activity on the Airbnb platform from the second half of 2019, before the pandemic began, through Fall 2020. All survey findings, unless otherwise specified, are from a nationally representative poll of the US adult population conducted by ClearPath Strategies from December 18–23, 2020, n = 1,036, with a margin of error of +/-3.1%
Other key takeaways from the report include:
Americans are feeling isolated and lonely
Isolation is a big driver for Americans wanting to be vaccinated, which is reflected by these statistics: 53 per cent feel less connected to their extended family; 53 per cent feel less connected to their friends; 56 per cent feel less connected to their local community; and about three in five feel less connected to their fellow Americans [58 per cent] and the rest of the world [59 per cent].
Meanwhile, a quarter of Americans [24 per cent] have reported feeling either “loneliness or emptiness”.
Americans miss travelling
Travel for pleasure is the out-of-home activity Americans have missed the most, even more so than going to restaurants and bars, or attending sporting and other live events.
Just thinking about travel makes people feel significantly happier [by 18 percentage points] and more hopeful [by nine points] than they otherwise do on a typical day.
A majority is ready to travel again: 54 per cent have either already booked, are currently planning to travel, or expect to travel in 2021. This includes 57 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds, and 60 per cent of 30- to 49-year-olds.
Travel will return because people want to connect
Visiting family and friends is the type of travel people have missed most during this pandemic, while business travel is the travel type they have missed least.
Of the respondents to Airbnb’s study, 41 per cent said such travel had become “much more” important to them, almost twice the percentage who cite travel to accomplish personal goals [22 per cent].
More Americans now say they would prefer to leave their phones at home rather than bring them along and visit popular places to get social media content [52 per cent compared to 21 per cent].
The ability to reconnect with friends and family [37 per cent] and to feel safe while travelling [32 per cent] are leading motivations to get vaccinated.
Family travel has not only grown in importance for people post-pandemic, but other recent research conducted for Airbnb suggests that family travel is the type of travel communities most want.
First trip, next trip
Above all, people are seeking a sense of calm and security from their first post-pandemic trip: the top emotions they want to feel during that first trip are “relaxed” [44 per cent], “comfortable” [34 per cent] and “safe” [33 per cent].
Beyond the first trip, Americans will continue to prioritise travel that is closer to their family [32 per cent] but equally prioritise a new experience or destination [31 per cent], preferably nearby, followed by a return to a favourite destination [25 per cent].
Older Americans [50+] are the demographic most interested in future travel to be close to family [33 per cent] and in revisiting a favourite spot [32 per cent], followed by a new experience or destination [29 per cent].
Younger Americans remain most interested in a second trip as a new experience or destination [35 per cent], followed by being close to family [31 per cent], being close to nature [23 per cent] and returning to a favourite place [23 per cent].
Based on its own data and research, Airbnb expects these trends to inform travel in 2021 and potentially beyond.
Business travel as we knew it is not coming back
Brian Chesky has long pinpointed how travel will be “reimagined” in the wake of this pandemic and business travel is likely to be hit as a result.
It is the type of travel people miss the least: six per cent said they would miss it the most of any travel type, compared to 48 per cent of those surveyed who said they would travel to spend time with loved ones. More than one third of people surveyed [36 per cent] expect to travel less for work after the pandemic compared to before it began.
The pandemic has furthermore institutionalised remote working for many companies—two in five Americans [41 per cent] are able to work or study from home at least some of the time.
In another recent survey commissioned by Airbnb, 35 per cent of respondents said it would become more common post-pandemic for people to relocate to new places so they can take advantage of the ability to work remotely. As employees become more widely distributed across the world, a greater share of business travel will likely consist of employees travelling from these locations to gather at their workplaces.
People want to travel nearby, by car
56 per cent of respondents said they would prefer a domestic or local destination, as opposed to 21 per cent who said they would visit a destination abroad or further away.
One in five want their destination to be within driving distance of home, and travel by car is the only means of travel that captures the interest of the majority of those surveyed, beating air travel by 17 points.
These sentiments echo the shift Airbnb saw in the use of its platform from H2 2019, when trip distances over 3,000 miles were most popular, to June 2020, when trips between 50-500 miles returned to year-over-year growth.
They are flexible on when and where they travel
There is a strong desire to avoid the crowds of popular destinations, as underlined by statistics revealed in the Airbnb report:
One in two [51 per cent] are more interested in being isolated beyond major tourist areas than they are in being “surrounded by people and energy” [24 per cent]. On Airbnb in H2 2019, most nights booked were in larger cities, but in 2020, smaller destinations within driving distance of big cities saw a sharp rise in demand.
Before the pandemic hit, Airbnb’s top ten destination cities for the second half of 2019, by nights stayed, were Barcelona, Lisbon, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, New York City, Paris, Rome, Seoul and Toronto.
In 2020, smaller, lower-profile destinations saw a significant rise in demand. These types of destinations have been among the largest year-over-year increases in searches for 2021 bookings: Derbyshire, UK; Rodanthe, on the coast of North Carolina; Forks, Washington, the main setting for the Twilight series; and the Muskoka Lakes, a few hours’ drive from Toronto.
Remote work and learning are giving many people more freedom to choose when they travel
One quarter of Americans said they were open to travelling during off-peak times of the year and days of the week. One quarter also saw themselves undertaking more long-term stays, while nearly one in five [19 per cent] stated they had already rented a vacation home for a stay of more than 28 days since the pandemic started.
In September 2020, Airbnb saw more bookings for stays of 28+ nights than in September 2019. Overall for Q3 2020, nights booked for stays of 28+ days also increased over Q3 2019.
People want travel that is affordable
Affordability is the highest priority overall when it comes to choosing accommodation, not just for the first trip but for future travel indefinitely [54 per cent], beating health and safety protocols by ten points. Nearly three in five Americans [58 per cent] earning less than $50,000 per year said they had booked, planned or were expecting to travel in 2021.
Based on ongoing Airbnb guest survey data, a majority of guests—including 53 per cent of all homes guests in 2019—said they choose Airbnb to save money while travelling.
People want to stay safe
One third [32 per cent] want the “vast majority of people” at a destination to have also been vaccinated in order to consider travelling there; 30 per cent will want testing to be available there; and 29 per cent will want to have urgent care available.
Sustainable travel is also top of mind
56 per cent of those under age 50 said they would be “much more” or “somewhat more likely” to use an online platform which offers the ability to search for alternate energy and green accommodations. Only 28 per cent of those aged 50+ said the same.
The full report is available below:-
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.