Aviation braces for influx of travelers to the United States

The rush to the west, post-Covid version? Tomorrow is the big day for families separated by long months of health crisis. The airlines have put themselves in order of battle to welcome on Monday vaccinated travelers from 33 countries, authorized to return to the United States after eighteen months of border closures.

Air France, British Airways, United Airlines… to cope, the companies which usually depend heavily on transatlantic and transpacific routes have added flights, chosen larger planes, made sure to have enough staff.

Expectation of separated families

The White House’s announcement of the lifting of restrictions had been awaited for months by separated families, business travelers in a hurry to meet their clients, or ordinary tourists: because of the virus, Washington had drastically limited passengers from these countries, including those in the Schengen area, the United Kingdom, China, India and Brazil.

Immediately, airline ticket reservations jumped. British Airways thus saw searches for flights and stays to certain American cities explode by 900% for the days leading up to Christmas, compared to the week before the announcement by the American government.

At American Airlines, the day after the announcement, reservations jumped 66% to the United Kingdom, 40% to Europe and 74% to Brazil.

Flights taken by storm

The flights of November 8, the date of the reopening, were taken by storm, as Evelyne and Jean-Michel Desobeau noted. Eager to see their daughter and son-in-law in New York, they had, from the first rumors of the border reopening, booked tickets for November 2, using their miles.

But when they wanted to change to the 8, the number of miles required had tripled, a sign of strong demand. They will finally arrive on the 9th, at a more reasonable price.

Anticipation of this increase in requests

For airlines, “there is not a before / after November 8,” notes an Air France spokesperson. On the one hand, they filled their planes better, which for a long time traveled with many empty seats. And they are gradually adding additional places.

The French company recently went from three flights a day between Paris and New York, its busiest route, to five. On the line to Houston, it will replace the Airbus 330s with Boeing 777s, which offer more seats.

Air France plans to return by March 2022 to 90% of its pre-Covid capacity in the United States, against 65% in October.

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After probably a little hollow in January-February, companies expect an upturn in the spring and especially in the summer, traditionally the most profitable season.

At United, the flight schedule to Latin America and its tourist destinations has already returned to 2019 levels, but its international schedule remains at only 63%.

The American company is betting big on transatlantic flights: in the spring it will open five new destinations (Jordan, Portugal, Norway, Spain), add flights to London, Berlin, Dublin, Milan, Munich and Rome, and reopen links interrupted during the pandemic including Frankfurt, Nice and Zurich.

Slower resumption of transpacific flights

Traffic should also resume on the trans-Pacific side, but more slowly.

Singapore Airlines, which took advantage in October of the opening of a corridor for vaccinated passengers between Singapore and North America, still plans to return to 77% of its pre-Covid flights between the two zones in December, notably with the reopening of lines to Seattle and Vancouver.

For Burkett Huey, air transport specialist at Morningstar, the companies have enough planes to cope with the influx of travelers: “A few large aircraft have indeed been withdrawn from the fleets in 2020 but nothing that completely changes the landscape”.

In terms of employees, on the other hand, there are more uncertainties, according to him. In the United States, where companies put in place vast voluntary departure plans at the start of the pandemic, American and Southwest recently had to cancel thousands of flights due to lack of sufficient manpower to handle unusual disruptions.

The question remains above all of knowing when business travel, a cash cow for companies, will return to their pre-Covid levels. And that could play on the proposed connections, he says.

In fact, for their transatlantic flights, companies have until now favored a few key lines with wide-body aircraft, to include the comfortable seats for business travelers. They complemented the journeys with domestic flights in the United States and Europe.

But with fewer business trips, they could offer more direct trips to tourists, using new planes that are smaller but now able to fly long distances, like the A321neo.

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