Despite Omicron, U.S. Airlines Upbeat About Holiday Travel, Though Still Below 2019 Levels

As the COVID-19 pandemic regains steam with the highly contagious Omicron variant, some people have decided to cancel their holiday travel plans, but many are still moving forward.

Several United States airlines have shown increased flight bookings compared to last year, though they still fall short of 2019 numbers.

American Airlines reported it will complete about 5,000 flights per day between December 19 and January 1. That’s about 1,300 more flights per day than 2020, but about 1,300 less per day than 2019.

Delta Air Lines shows a similar trend, reporting that an estimated 8 million people will fly between December 17 and January 3, almost twice last year’s number but still 1.3 million less than 2019.

Both airlines said the pandemic has most affected international travel. Nationwide lockdowns and some countries banning travel to and from certain places have made traveling across borders riskier.

And although other countries have largely left travel decisions to their citizens, many health experts urge people to exercise caution when traveling for the holidays, especially with the Omicron variant rapidly spreading around the world.

Some research has suggested that Omicron is milder than Delta, but nothing has been confirmed yet.

« An event canceled is better than a life canceled, » said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization.

For the second year in a row, the ever-morphing coronavirus presents would-be holiday revelers with a difficult choice: cancel their trips and celebrations yet again or figure out how to forge ahead as safely as possible. Above, donning a Santa Claus hat, Caitlin Banford waits in line to check in for her flight to Washington at Los Angeles International Airport on December 20, 2021.
Jae C. Hong/AP Photo

Dave Fravel and his wife invited several relatives to their Cape Cod home for Christmas to share food, gifts and the togetherness they’ve longed for during the lonely days of the pandemic. They were also looking forward to a holiday sightseeing trip to New York City.

But the coronavirus spoiled all those plans. With cases surging in their state of Massachusetts and the super-infectious Omicron variant racing around the world, they feared spreading the virus even before Fravel’s 18-year-old son, Colin, came down with COVID-19.

Rich England has been there before. In the summer, when the Delta variant was surging, he said no to a Christmastime vacation with his parents and sister’s family to London and Scotland. But he, his wife and 2-year-old daughter are keeping plans for a four-day trip from their home in Alexandria, Virginia, to Miami on December 31.

« The safest thing to do would be to say ‘OMG, we have to cancel,' » he said. « But there’s a lot of letters in the Greek alphabet—there’s going to be variants after Omicron. You can’t just respond to every single variant by shutting down. »

In the United States, infections average around 149,000 a day, and officials announced this week that Omicron dethroned Delta as the dominant variant. In Britain, where an Omicron-fueled surge is seen as a harbinger for many other European countries, daily cases topped 100,000 for the first time on Tuesday. France, Spain and Italy are also seeing infection spikes.

Fravel and his wife, Sue Malomo, who are both software developers and have six children between them, are worried about Omicron and Delta. Fravel, 51, said they nixed their trip to New York City because « the thought of being in those big crowds didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. »

Neither did having lots of people at their house. Typically, 20 to 25 people filter through between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But this year, only the kids will come and not all at the same time.

« Right now, the plan is everyone’s just kind of staying put in smaller circles or doing FaceTime, » Fravel said.

England, an energy lobbyist, also weighed his options—and decided a trip could be made. He and his wife both got booster shots, which reassures him, though his daughter is too young for the vaccine.

« We picked Miami in part because we would be able to eat exclusively outdoors and then spend time on the beach and at the pool, » he said. But even he is still hedging: As of Tuesday evening, they were « 80/20 going. »

Colombia native Julieta Aranguren has already begun her trip. The 18-year-old was on a stopover in Madrid on Wednesday on her way to Dubai, where she planned to spend time with relatives. She spent thousands of dollars on flights and hotels—booked nine months ago—so she said that she didn’t consider canceling.

But she still faces the unknown. Her group plans to go shopping, dine out and visit the World Expo in Dubai, so « it would be no fun at all if there were more restrictions, » Aranguren said.

It’s still unclear which path most people will take. Ryanair, Europe’s biggest airline, lowered its forecast for the number of passengers for December from 11 million to 10 million, chief executive Michael O’Leary told the Guardian last week.

Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, said people should consider taking a rapid test for COVID-19 on the day of a gathering or, better yet, a more accurate PCR test 24 hours in advance. But experts warn that tests are not a firewall against infection.

« It’s a good idea to kind of rethink big plans of travel or getting together in large groups, » he said.

Small groups of less than 10 people can gather in safety if they ensure that everyone is vaccinated, wear masks indoors and encourage people most vulnerable to severe disease to stay home. Other experts suggest opening windows to improve ventilation and staying outdoors as much as possible.

« To me, the holidays are a time to think about others. This is often expressed through gift giving, charitable donations or volunteering, » Binnicker said. « But this year, there’s another excellent way to think of others, and that’s to take precautions to stop the spread of COVID-19 and influenza. »

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Though in the U.S. travel is largely up to the individual, many health experts are warning against traveling for the holidays. Above, mask requirement signs are displayed around John Glenn Columbus International Airport as travelers wait to check in on December 22, 2021, in Ohio.
Jay LaPrete/AP Photo

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