© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A passenger traveling to the United States walks into Terminal 3 at Toronto Pearson Airport, days before new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing protocols come into effect for entry into the United States, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Jan. December 2021. REUTERS / Chris He

By Jamie Freed and Alexander Cornwell

SYDNEY / ABU DHABI (Reuters) – Before the Omicron variant of the coronavirus hit the stage in November, retired Australian Glenn Turnley was looking forward to a three-week trip to Japan, the UK and France in March – his first trip abroad since the pandemic began .

Despite being fully vaccinated and boosted, Turnley says Omicron’s high portability likely means he will cancel – even if Japan opens its borders to foreigners.

“I was less concerned about Delta because the vaccines available seemed to do the job,” he said.

“I don’t want to spend part of a vacation in quarantine or the like anywhere, especially not in a foreign country.”

While the Omicron variant of COVID-19 infection is potentially less severe, it is proving to be just as disruptive as the Delta variant for many airlines and has dampened prospects for the first quarter.

Its high portability has resulted in stricter border rules in many countries and increased the risk that even fully vaccinated travelers will test positive upon arrival and then be stuck in their destination for weeks, affecting confidence.

“Of course there are uncertainties. So if you get infected with COVID, you can get stuck in a country that is quite unpredictable for you, ”said Jozsef Varadi, CEO of European low-cost airline Wizz Air, which also operates in Abu Dhabi.

“So I don’t think demand has fully returned, but we are certainly seeing some people willing to take more risks in general to travel.”

Omicron’s rate of spread, which is causing staff shortages and shortened COVID-19 test periods, makes it a big problem, said Olivier Ponti, vice president of insights at travel trend company ForwardKeys.

ForwardKeys data shows international flight bookings are at 38% of 2019 levels, well below October’s high of 58%, albeit above the low in early December.

FRESH TRAVEL BARRIERS

Even people willing to take the risk of travel while Omicron spreads face hurdles from rapidly changing rules.

Brisbane-based business development manager Greg Lauer said he and three colleagues planned to visit his company’s headquarters in Hyderabad, India, next week after booking in mid-December.

Two withdrew almost immediately because of the Omicron risks, even though he and another colleague were willing to move on.

“The biggest risk was getting stuck,” said Lauer. “I have fully comprehensive insurance and am tormented and charged.”

But then India reintroduced mandatory quarantine for foreign comers last week, so he canceled the trip.

A recent survey of US travelers by broker Jefferies found that Omicron had 20% of respondents cancel plans due to case numbers and another 20% due to destination restrictions.

Even in the lucrative business travel segment, Omicron poses a recovery risk. Large companies continue to delay their return to their offices and some major events such as the World Economic Forum in Davos have been postponed.

“The impact of Omicron in the first quarter is significant and more significant than Delta in some markets,” said Singapore-based analyst Brendan Sobie.

BREAK IN BOOKINGS

Even where there is demand, it has become more difficult to serve.

Airlines from the United States, Australia, and Finland are among those struggling to find enough crew members to fly as so many are infected or isolated as close contacts from COVID-19 cases.

Global airlines reduced their capacity by 7.2% this week, one of the largest weekly declines in the past six months, travel data company OAGs said. This includes a 44% cut at Europe’s Ryanair and 17% at Lufthansa.

“International ticket sales in December and early January fell sharply compared to 2019, suggesting a more difficult first quarter than expected,” said International Air Transport Association general manager Willie Walsh.

Delta Air Lines (NYSE 🙂 Chief Executive Ed Bastian said international bookings have been “paused” due to border restrictions, but he expects a strong spring and summer on the transatlantic routes once the rules are relaxed due to pent-up demand.

Possibly positive in the medium term, the huge wave of Omicron cases worldwide has raised some hopes that COVID-19 may be on its way to becoming endemic like the flu, which did not make international travel difficult.

But first, travelers must weigh the risks of each trip, said Irene Lai, global medical director at International SOS, the company advises on health and safety issues.

“Traveling is just very complicated,” said Lai from Sydney, who does not plan to go overseas until 2023.

“We see it all the time: that a country’s entry regulations can change without notice,” she said. “So you may get stuck.”

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