Airlines Log Busiest Days Since Early 2020 Over Thanksgiving But Omicron Poses New Challenge

Matthew Hatcher | Getty Images
  • Cancellations were minimal compared with mass disruptions earlier this year.
  • Southwest and American were among the airlines that offered staff extra bonus pay for holiday trips.
  • Concern over the omicron variant of the coronavirus sparked new travel restrictions in the U.K., U.S., Japan, Israel and elsewhere.

U.S. airlines over Thanksgiving week had some of their busiest days since before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic as travelers returned in droves to reunite with family after a subdued holiday last year.

The Transportation Security Administration screened nearly 2.5 million people on Sunday, the most since Feb. 15, 2020. That was about 15% below the number of people the TSA screened two years earlier. From Nov. 22 through Sunday 14.4 million people passed through TSA, more than double the 6.4 million a year ago but down from 16.4 million in 2019.

Airports, planes and parking lots were packed but travelers and airlines lucked out with mostly good weather and small numbers of cancellations, unlike the mass disruptions that affected hundreds of thousands of passengers during several episodes since this summer.

Airlines including Southwest and American had offered flight attendants and other staff extra pay or bonuses for working holiday trips and meeting attendance goals.

American, which offered flight attendants up to triple pay for peak-day trips, said it flew 5.6 million passengers from Nov. 19 through Sunday.

"And while we're proud of these numbers and what they represent for American and the industry, it's the way we operated this holiday travel season that is even more impressive," COO David Seymour said in a staff note on Monday. American flew 1,500 flights a day more than its "major competitors," he said.

It canceled fewer than 0.5% of its mainline and regional flights and 85% were on time, slightly better than the airline's goal, Seymour wrote.

Despite the surge in air travel over the holiday, airlines are now facing a new challenge as more countries report cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, just as international travel was rebounding as more nations loosened travel rules.

Airline executives said bookings surged when travel restrictions that barred international tourism from more than 30 countries in the U.S. were lifted on Nov. 8. International travel is key to carriers' financial recovery from the pandemic.

Scientists in South Africa were the first to detect the new variant.

The fresh strain has raised concerns among health officials over whether it could be more easily transmissible. Cases of omicron have been found in South Africa, the U.K., Israel, Hong Kong, Canada and other countries. Dutch health officials said Sunday that they had found at least 13 cases of omicron out of 61 passengers who tested positive for Covid on two flights from South Africa.

The Biden administration starting Monday is temporarily banning visitors from South Africa and seven other southern African nations, less than a month after it lifted pandemic rules that barred visitors from South Africa, the U.K. and more than 30 other countries.

Both Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, the only U.S. carriers with nonstop service to South Africa, on Friday said they aren't changing their schedules.

Airlines for America, a lobbyist for major U.S. carriers like American, Delta and United, said it is in contact with the U.S. government about the situation.

"International travel is critical to reviving economies around the globe, supporting millions of jobs in the U.S. and abroad, reinvigorating communities and reuniting families, friends and colleagues who have not seen in each other in nearly two years or longer," said spokesman Carter Yang in a statement. "Amid this rapidly evolving situation, it is critical that U.S. government decisions regarding international travel restrictions and requirements be rooted in science."

Israel banned foreign visitors for two weeks, in one of the strictest new rules. Japan followed suit with a similar restriction, effective Tuesday. The U.K. will require travelers take a PCR test upon arrival from abroad and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.

Concerns about the variant and new travel restrictions on Friday sent airline and aerospace stocks tumbling, though network carriers were down slightly Monday morning.

"There is still a lot to learn about the variant and how people will react to travel as a result of it, but we believe the stocks are in for volatility until more is known," MKM Partners airline analyst Conor Cunningham wrote in a note Sunday.

Copyright CNBC
Contact Us