Exclusive-U.S. will not lift travel restrictions, citing Delta variant -official

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will not lift any existing travel restrictions “at this point” due to concerns over the highly transmissible COVID-19 Delta variant and the rising number of U.S. coronavirus cases, a White House official told Reuters.

The decision, which comes after a senior level White House meeting late Friday, means the long-running travel restrictions that have barred much of the world’s population from the United States since 2020 will not be lifted in the short term.

“Given where we are today with the Delta variant, the United States will maintain existing travel restrictions at this point,” the official told Reuters, citing the spread of the Delta variant in the United States and abroad.

“Driven by the Delta variant, cases are rising here at home, particularly among those who are unvaccinated and appear likely to continue to increase in the weeks ahead.”

The announcement almost certainly dooms any bid by U.S. airlines and the U.S. tourism industry to salvage summer travel by Europeans and others covered by the restrictions. Airlines have heavily lobbied the White House for months to lift the restrictions.

The United States currently bars most non-U.S. citizens who within the last 14 days have been in the United Kingdom, the 26 Schengen nations in Europe without border controls, Ireland, China, India, South Africa, Iran and Brazil.

The extraordinary U.S. travel restrictions were first imposed on China in January 2020 to address the spread of COVID-19 and other countries have been added since then — most recently India in early May.

Last week, the U.S. Homeland Security Department said U.S. land borders with Canada and Mexico will remain closed to non-essential travel until at least Aug. 21 — even as Canada said it would begin allowing in fully vaccinated American tourists starting Aug. 9.

Asked on July 15 at a joint appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about when the United States would lift European travel restrictions, Biden said he would “be able to answer that question to you within the next several days — what is likely to happen.”

Merkel said any decision to lift restrictions “has to be a sustainable decision. It is certainly not sensible to have to take it back after only a few days.”

Since that press conference, U.S. cases have jumped.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Rochelle Walensky said Thursday the seven-day average of new cases in the United States was up 53% over the previous week. The Delta variant, which was first found in India, now comprises more than 80% of new cases nationwide and has been detected in more than 90 countries.

The White House official also cited the fact that last week, the CDC urged Americans to avoid travel to the United Kingdom, given a jump in cases.

But the official added: “The administration understands the importance of international travel and is united in wanting to reopen international travel in a safe and sustainable manner.”

The restrictions have brought heavy criticism from people prevented from seeing loved ones.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Friday said international travel is “something we would all like to see — not just for tourism, but for families to be reunited.”

But Psaki added “we rely on public health and medical advice on when we’re going to determine changes to be made.”

The Biden administration has refused to offer any metrics that would trigger when it will unwind restrictions and has not disclosed if it will remove restrictions on individual countries or focus on enhancing individual traveler scrutiny.

Reuters reported last week the White House was discussing the potential of mandating COVID-19 vaccines for international visitors, but no decisions have been made, the sources said.

The Biden administration has also been talking to U.S. airlines in recent weeks about establishing international contact tracing for passengers before lifting travel restrictions.

The White House in early June launched interagency working groups with the European Union, Britain, Canada and Mexico to look at how eventually to lift travel and border restrictions.

In January, the CDC imposed mandatory COVID-19 testing requirements for nearly all international air travelers.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

U.S. industry groups, lawmakers press White House to lift travel restrictions

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A coalition of 24 industry organizations on Wednesday urged the White House to lift restrictions that bar much of the world from traveling to the United States but the Biden administration showed no signs of taking immediate action.

The groups led by U.S. Travel Association and representing airlines, casinos, hotels, airports, airplane manufacturers and others, urged the administration to ease entry restrictions by July 15 that were imposed last year during the pandemic, and to quickly lift entry restrictions on UK travelers.

“We have the knowledge and the tools we need to restart international travel safely, and it is past time that we use them,” U.S. Travel Chief Executive Roger Dow said.

Separately, 75 members of the U.S. House of Representatives called on Biden to reopen the U.S. border with Canada to non-essential travelers.

The lawmakers in a letter cited projections that if the restrictions are not lifted, the United States could “lose 1.1 million jobs and an additional $175 billion by the end of this year.” The White House did not immediately comment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has raised concerns about the Delta variant of COVID-19 in U.S. government meetings, sources said. Industry and U.S. officials told Reuters they do not expect the administration to lift restrictions soon.

The CDC wants airlines to implement international passenger contact tracing as part of any lifting of restrictions, sources told Reuters.

The administration has been holding separate working group calls with Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union typically every two weeks to discuss how to unwind the restrictions.

Airlines and others have pressed the administration to lift restrictions covering most non-U.S. citizens who have recently been in Britain, the 26 Schengen nations in Europe without border controls, Ireland, China, India, South Africa, Iran and Brazil.

The 75 lawmakers called for lifting restrictions that bar most UK travelers and to develop “a risk-based, data-driven roadmap to ease inbound entry restrictions.”

Some in congress have also called on the administration to lift requirements that travelers wear masks in airports, subway stations and on airplanes and trains but is not currently considering lifting those requirements, officials told Reuters.

The Transportation Security Administration in April extended the face mask requirement in transit through Sept. 13.

Last month, the administration extended restrictions barring non-essential travel at Mexican and Canada land borders until July 21.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chris Reese and David Gregorio)

Airlines, unions urge U.S. to prosecute ‘egregious onboard conduct’

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A group representing major U.S. airlines and aviation unions on Monday wrote to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the Justice Department to crack down on the growing number of disruptive and violent air passengers.

The Justice Department did not immediately comment on the letter, first reported by Reuters.

The letter from Airlines for America, which represents American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and others, along with major unions said the “incidents pose a safety and security threat to our passengers and employees, and we respectfully request the (Justice Department) commit to the full and public prosecution of onboard acts of violence.”

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Steve Dickson, in January imposed a zero-tolerance order on passenger disturbances aboard airplanes after supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump were disruptive on some flights around the time of a Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack.

Monday’s letter added that the airlines and unions hope the Justice Department “will commit to taking action, along with coordination with the FAA, to ensure that egregious onboard conduct is fully and criminally prosecuted, sending a strong public message of deterrence, safety and security.”

The letter to Garland said that since the FAA’s zero- tolerance policy was announced, the agency has received more than 3,039 reports of unruly behavior and has opened 465 investigations into assaults, threats of assault or interference with crew members.

More than 2,000 cases included passengers refusing to wear face masks as required on all airplanes.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on April 30 extended a federal face mask mandate on airplanes and in airports through Sept. 13.

(Reporting by David Shepardson, Editing by Franklin Paul and Howard Goller)

UK removes Portugal from safe travel list in blow for airlines

By Sarah Young

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain has removed Portugal from its quarantine-free travel list, the country’s transport minister said on Thursday, essentially shutting down the UK’s leisure travel market and deepening the pandemic crisis for airlines.

Airline easyJet also said no new countries would be added to the so-called green list.

Britain relaunched travel on May 17 following more than four months of lockdown, with Portugal the only big destination open to UK travelers.

Transport Minister Grant Shapps told reporters that Portugal would be moved to the amber list due to rising COVID-19 case numbers and the risk of a mutation of the virus variant first discovered in India.

Over the last three weeks, Portugal has proved a lifeline for airlines and travel companies. The industry had been expecting a wider reopening this month, but instead will face weeks of cancellations and more uncertainty.

“This decision essentially cuts the UK off from the rest of the world,” easyJet said in an emailed statement.

The airline also said that the UK would be left behind as governments across Europe start to open up travel.

Shares in easyJet and British Airways-owner IAG and Jet2 were down 5%, while Ryanair and TUI, which has a big German customer base as well as British, lost 4% on fears that Europe would lose another peak travel season, when millions of Britons usually head to southern Europe in July and August.

The industry is already weakened by 15 months of lockdowns and it will be severely financially challenged if there is no reopening this summer.

Many companies had hoped for bumper trading given that Britain has one of Europe’s highest vaccination rates and is gradually reopening its domestic economy.

But worries over the spread of new more transmissible variants of coronavirus and the vaccine’s efficacy against them are now threatening that plan.

Data provided by Cirium showed that Ryanair and easyJet had been scheduled to operate over 500 flights from the UK to Portugal in June. The airlines had all added flights to the country in May.

Under the UK system, travel to countries rated amber or red is not illegal but it is discouraged. Spain, France, Italy and the United States are on the amber list which means quarantining on return, restricting demand from Britons for what are usually the most popular destinations.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had warned the travel industry that protecting the country’s vaccine roll-out was his priority.

“I want you to know we will have no hesitation in moving countries from the green list to the amber list to the red list if we have to do so. The priority is to continue the vaccine rollout, to protect the people of this country,” he told reporters.

Travel companies and airlines have criticized the government for being overly cautious, saying that increasing vaccination rates and testing can make travel safe.

(Reporting by William James and Sarah Young, Editing by Paul Sandle, Kate Holton and Andrew Heavens and Kirsten Donovan)

Airlines urge G7 to back data-driven travel reopening

PARIS (Reuters) -Global airlines urged the G7 rich nations on Wednesday to replace blanket COVID-19 travel curbs with more flexible restrictions informed by data, artificial intelligence and risk analysis.

Willie Walsh, head of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), also said during an online event that airlines and passengers should be allowed to assess travel risks based on increasingly abundant health data.

The former British Airways head said he was confident Europe could begin to return to normal travel in the second half of the year as vaccination rates rise.

“With sensible testing and screening methods in place we can safely open our borders to regain the freedom that has been taken from us,” he said.

Ministers and officials from G7 countries are meeting in London on June 4-5 ahead of a leaders’ summit next week.

Airlines weakened by 15 months of lockdowns are facing a slower than expected recovery, as lingering travel restrictions overshadow the peak northern summer season. Concern over the spread of more transmissible coronavirus variants also threatens to slow reopening plans.

IATA drew on UK testing data that showed a low incidence of COVID-19 in arriving passengers, during the joint presentation with Airbus and Boeing representatives, who demonstrated digital travel risk models.

“These data tell us we can do better,” Walsh said, citing a 2.2% positive rate among 365,895 tests carried out in February-May, according to the National Health Service – or 1.46% excluding higher-risk “red list” countries.

Walsh also singled out Greece, which has largely reopened to foreign tourists, for its use of testing data and artificial intelligence to monitor risk in real time.

“We’re seeing more and more countries questioning whether they have the appropriate measures in place,” he said.

But David Heymann, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, sounded a note of caution.

“What’s really set off governments is the variants, and the fear they will escape the protection offered by vaccines,” he said during the same event.

“No matter what you show in terms of models they’re still going to be concerned about the variants.”

(Reporting by Tim Hepher; Additional reporting by Laurence Frost. Editing by Jan Harvey and Mark Potter)

Airlines look past slow recovery to post-pandemic travel

By Laurence Frost

PARIS (Reuters) – Even as new setbacks cloud their path to recovery, airline bosses are focusing on the lasting impact of COVID-19 on premium travel, technology and other pillars of their business.

Aviation leaders, forced to gather virtually by the pandemic, have been gauging its longer-term fallout at the World Aviation Festival, after more than a year of lockdowns.

Drawing many top executives and thousands of participants, this week’s event comes as doubts over the northern summer vacation season renew scrutiny of airlines’ cash and their ability to withstand another washout.

The addition of France, Britain and 114 other states to the U.S. “Do Not Travel” list has also cast a pall.

“There will be a lot of carriers that will not make it through,” Air France-KLM Chief Executive Ben Smith said, citing nameless rivals that were “not viable prior to the crisis”.

For survivors like state-backed Air France-KLM, market consolidation would be welcome, Smith said, adding: “Even if it takes longer than planned for traffic to return, with a reduction in capacity that’s a good balance for us”.

Air France-KLM expects to need more capital following a 10.4 billion euro ($12.5 billion) bailout in 2020 and 1 billion-euro share issue this week. Long-haul juggernaut Emirates may also need to raise more cash within months, the Gulf carrier’s President Tim Clark said during the event.

BUSINESS DECLINE

Despite the deep uncertainties, executives are looking beyond the pandemic to anticipate underlying shifts.

High on the list is a structural slump in business travel as many future meetings – if not airline conferences – stay online.

“A large percentage of this traffic will not come back on long-haul,” aviation consultant John Strickland predicted, as companies curb travel costs and carbon emissions.

“You can’t beat face-to-face in many business situations,” he said. “However a big amount can be cut.”

That will hit yields, or fare levels, Clark and his Virgin Atlantic counterpart Shai Weiss acknowledged, although the Emirates boss expects leisure customers to fill business cabins.

“If you drop (fares) by 15% or 20% they will come to business,” Clark said. Such customers are “not quite as good as the corporate segments were, but hey ho, you take what you can get and you fill your aircraft.”

The pandemic has sped efforts by airlines and airports to integrate digital passenger services, information and document checks, while the race is on to deploy “contactless” processes and digital health passes with COVID-19 vaccination and test certificates.

DIGITAL DRIVE

EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren said digital platform upgrades hurriedly deployed to cope with last year’s flood of flight cancellations and refund claims were now among post-crisis “silver linings”.

“Cost bases have been reset” after the low-cost carrier invested in “self-service” capabilities for its booking system, he said. Airlines that have used the crisis for digital upgrades “will come out of this in a more efficient way.”

Even with traffic around 10% of pre-crisis levels, airports have warned that COVID-19 paperwork and test results are already clogging “pinch points” in check-in and boarding, despite full staffing.

Without swift digitization of processes including test and vaccine checks, airports could be overwhelmed by a traffic uptick as soon as May, said Emiliano Sorrenti, chief information and technology officer at Aeroporti di Roma, which operates the Italian capital’s Fiumicino and Ciampino airports.

“When we reach just 50% of (pre-crisis) passengers, will we be able to cope with those numbers given the new regulations?” he said. Fully seamless services that now seem far off will rapidly become a “mandatory level of automation”, he expects.

Vaccination setbacks and concern over COVID-19 variants suggest airports may have a little longer to prepare.

Global airline body IATA this week cut its traffic forecast to reflect a weaker international travel outlook, despite domestic rebounds in U.S. and China.

But Clark, who has put off his retirement to pilot Emirates through the crisis, remained upbeat about the recovery opportunities awaiting his eventual successor.

“We are, dare I say it, on the threshold of something really good here,” he said. “Once this pandemic is over.”

(Reporting by Laurence Frost; Additional reporting by Sarah Young in London and Conor Humphries in Dublin; Editing by Alexander Smith)

Airline outlook dims again as new travel curbs threaten summer

By Laurence Frost and Sarah Young

LONDON (Reuters) – Recovery prospects for Europe’s coronavirus-stricken airlines are slipping from bad to worse, as a British minister warned on Tuesday against booking summer holidays and Germany mulled a drastic new clampdown on travel even within the EU.

UK consumers should “absolutely” hold off from booking holidays, said Nadhim Zahawi, the minister responsible for vaccinations. “There’s still 37,000 people in hospital with COVID at the moment – it’s far too early for us to even speculate about the summer.”

Airline shares, which had gained ground since November’s vaccine breakthroughs, have come under pressure this week amid concern that new coronavirus variants and resulting lockdowns now threaten the all-important summer season.

While major carriers have secured liquidity to survive the slump for many more months, analysts say, the latest setbacks mean some may need fresh funds to survive the following winter – tough at the best of times – and weaker airlines may fail.

Mounting restrictions and testing demands threaten more “stress and friction” throughout the summer, as well as “a more truncated recovery in demand than investors currently envisage,” Citi analyst Mark Manduca warned in a note.

The travel outlook for the Easter break – this year falling in early April – already seems almost hopeless.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told party lawmakers on Tuesday that “no tourist travel should be taking place,” as her government weighed tougher measures.

Throughout the crisis, governments have tried to maintain travel links among EU and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) states. Over the weekend, however, Sweden barred travel from neighbor Norway in an attempt to stem the spread of new COVID-19 variants, and Belgium banned non-essential travel.

Britain is also considering mandatory confinement in “quarantine hotels” for some international arrivals, following the example of some Asian countries.

Shares in UK-exposed easyJet and British Airways parent IAG have both fallen 14% over five days amid the resurgent gloom, wiping out some of their gains since November. Ryanair has lost 6% in the same period.

And while aircraft manufacturers have been cushioned by their large pre-crisis order books, some suppliers and engine makers are feeling the heat.

Rolls-Royce further lowered its financial forecasts on Tuesday, predicting a 2 billion-pound ($2.7 billion) cash outflow this year as the collapse in flying hours hit so-called power-by-the-hour contracts as well as maintenance.

British airlines and airports warned that further travel restrictions would prove “catastrophic,” calling for a bespoke support package to help them survive the prolonged crisis.

The new curbs also threaten jobs and cargo shipments including medical equipment, industry body Airlines UK said.

Airlines’ key role in vaccine distribution is also helping some to push back against restrictions affecting staff.

KLM, part of Air France-KLM, won a partial reprieve from Dutch plans to require rapid COVID-19 tests of returning crew, after warning of cargo disruption.

(Reporting by Laurence Frost in Paris and Sarah Young in London. Editing by Mark Potter)

U.S. agency screened 1.18 million airline passengers on Sunday

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Transportation Security Administration said it screened 1.18 million airline passengers on Sunday, the highest number since mid-March but still about 60% lower than the comparable day last year.

The number of passengers screened on the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year was 2.88 million, the highest ever recorded by the agency.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month urged Americans not to travel during this week’s Thanksgiving holiday to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus as cases of COVID-19 spike around the United States.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Caribbean resorts get starring role in U.S airlines’ COVID-19 holiday playbook

By Tracy Rucinski

CHICAGO (Reuters) – U.S. airlines are adding flights, and in some cases COVID-19 testing programs, for travel to Mexico and the Caribbean, a region central to carriers’ strategies to tap into pockets of holiday demand before a vaccine makes its way around the world.

Beachside resort destinations in areas like Cancun are the only spots that now have more flights from U.S. cities scheduled for November and December than last year, numbers from aviation data firm Cirium show.

Overall, U.S. airlines are flying about 50% less than 2019, with flights to traditional European vacation hotspots like Paris down by as much as 82% due to travel bans and quarantines.

While new revenue streams from destinations like the Caribbean will help, they won’t be enough to put airlines in the black for the year, analysts have said.

The holiday period is traditionally when airlines thrive ahead of slow months in January and February. But this year they have said they will continue to burn millions of dollars daily through the fourth quarter as they wrestle with slashed demand.

Ahead of Thanksgiving, U.S. airports saw their busiest weekend since mid-March, even after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urged Americans not to travel amid a spike in COVID-19 cases. Still, demand is down by around 60% and airlines say it’s too soon to know how Christmas travel will play out.

Still, airlines are hoping to build up a base of customers who feel comfortable about flying before a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available, eyeing the typically lucrative summer travel season.

More studies, including from the Harvard School of Public Health and the U.S. Department of Defense, have said the risk of COVID-19 transmission in flight is low if people wear masks.

Recent positive vaccine developments have helped reassure investors that U.S. airlines can make it through the crisis. Sector shares rose 4% on Monday and are up 23% for the month.

But the speed and depth of their recovery, particularly from higher-margin business and international travel, will determine how they cut piles of debt they took on to weather the crisis.

Airlines are trying to reboot overseas travel through bilateral bubbles – deals between countries on COVID-19 testing protocols that would replace or reduce quarantines – though programs have been slow to take off.

United Airlines last week launched a free rapid COVID-19 testing program between Newark Liberty International and London Heathrow airports, and on Monday said it was rolling out a test program for flights from U.S. energy capital Houston, Texas to 10 places in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Starting Dec. 7, passengers can take the self-collected, mail-in test 72 hours before departure for $119 to meet entry requirements at their destination.

(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)

Airlines set to lose $157 billion amid worsening slump: IATA

By Laurence Frost

PARIS (Reuters) – Airlines are on course to lose a total $157 billion this year and next, their main global body warned on Tuesday, further downgrading its industry outlook in response to a second wave of coronavirus infections and shutdowns afflicting major markets.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which in June had forecast $100 billion in losses for the two-year period, said it now projects a $118.5 billion deficit this year alone, and a further $38.7 billion for 2021.

The bleak outlook underscores challenges still facing the sector despite upbeat news on development of COVID-19 vaccines, whose global deployment will continue throughout next year.

“The positive impact it will have on the economy and air traffic will not happen massively before mid-2021,” IATA Director General Alexandre de Juniac told Reuters.

Passenger numbers are expected to drop to 1.8 billion this year from 4.5 billion in 2019, IATA estimates, and will recover only partially to 2.8 billion next year. Passenger revenue for 2020 is expected to have plunged 69% to $191 billion.

“That’s by far the biggest shock the industry has experienced in the post-World War Two years,” IATA Chief Economist Brian Pearce said.

The forecasts assume significant re-opening of borders by the middle of next year, helped by some combination of COVID-19 testing and vaccine deployment.

IATA reiterated its call for governments to replace travel-stifling quarantine regimes with widespread testing programs.

“We are seeing states progressively coming to listen to us,” de Juniac said, citing testing initiatives underway in France, Germany, Italy, Britain, the United States and Singapore.

While some governments and airlines such as Australia’s Qantas say passengers are likely to require vaccination for long-haul travel, the approach is unlikely to work everywhere, de Juniac said.

“It would prevent people who are refusing (the vaccine) from travelling,” the IATA chief said. “Systematic testing is even more critical to reopen borders than the vaccine.”

Air cargo, a rare bright spot for the industry as the grounding of flights pushes freight prices higher, will likely see global revenue rise 15% to $117.7 billion this year despite an 11.6% decline in volume to 54.2 million tonnes, IATA said.

Some $173 billion in government aid has left recipients with debts that threaten to hobble future investment, it warned, and more bankruptcies are likely. Norwegian Air became the latest casualty on Nov. 18, when it filed for bankruptcy protection in Ireland.

The average airline now has enough liquidity to survive another 8.5 months, while some have just weeks, Pearce said. “I think we will get consolidation through some airline failures.”

(Reporting by Laurence Frost; Additional reporting by Johnny Cotton; Editing by Mark Potter and David Evans)