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)

New York City Marathon returns after 2020 COVID-19 cancellation

By Amy Tennery

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A limited field of 33,000 runners will return to the starting line for the 50th running of the New York City Marathon in November after it was cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The annual event that draws thousands of cheering fans to the Big Apple will take place on Nov. 7.

“The New York City Marathon is a reminder of everything New Yorkers can accomplish with persistence, hard work, and community support,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.

“As we build a recovery for all of us, there’s no better time to safely reconnect with the iconic events that make our city great.”

The 26.2-mile (42.2 km) race, typically the final of the six Abbott World Marathon Majors run each year, is hugely popular with amateur runners and professionals alike and saw a record 53,627 finishers in 2019, the last time it was contested.

New York Road Runners, which puts on the event each year, said runners will be required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test or a vaccine and must adhere to government guidelines around travel and quarantine.

Organizers plan to use “a controllable and scalable time-trial start format” to reduce congestion at the start and finish.

“While cancelling the race was the right choice in 2020, we are excited to welcome runners back to our beautiful city,” said governor Andrew Cuomo.

“New Yorkers worked hard to flatten the curve after the COVID-19 outbreak and it is that work that allows us to be able to take this step in bringing normalcy back to our state.”

(Reporting by Amy Tennery, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

Britain reopens travel from May 17 to limited destinations

By Sarah Young

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain will allow people in England to resume international travel from May 17 but is limiting the number of destinations open for quarantine-free holidays to just a handful of countries as it cautiously emerges from lockdown restrictions.

Portugal, Israel, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore all made the green list for travel in a system that will be reviewed every three weeks, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said. Popular destinations such as France, Spain and Greece did not.

Airlines, holiday companies and tourist hotspots in southern Europe have been waiting for over four months for big-spending Britons to start travelling again, but they will have to wait a few months longer for a full rebound to take off.

Left off the list were Spain, France, Italy and the United States, the top four most visited countries by UK residents in 2019, which all sit in the amber category, requiring self-isolation on return to the UK.

Trade bodies for pilots and airlines said Britain was being excessively cautious and that such a limited reopening would continue to drag on an industry which is battling for survival.

Before the announcement, the chief executive of British Airways-owner IAG had called on the UK and the U.S. to open a travel corridor given their high vaccination rates.

“Today marks the first step in our cautious return to international travel, with measures designed above all else to protect public health and ensure we don’t throw away the hard-fought gains we’ve all strived to earn this year,” Shapps said.

The travel industry had argued that Britain’s rapid vaccination program should enable the country to open up more quickly but the government has prioritized efforts to prevent variances of the coronavirus from entering the country.

Despite the limitations, permitting travel abroad is still a welcome boost for the beleaguered sector and should prompt bookings. Britons have been banned from going abroad without an essential reason since early January, a blow for leisure travel and also splitting families who live across different countries.

British Airways, easyJet, Ryanair, TUI and others will now likely have to wait until next month for the larger scale re-opening they need to repair their COVID-19 battered finances.

Experts have warned that prices could shoot up for bookings to the few countries on the green list and Shapps said airports could also see longer delays as passengers have to show negative test results.

Green list travel will involve people taking two COVID-19 tests, one before arrival back into the UK and one within two days of returning.

Countries where Britons might want to travel will still have their own rules for entry. For example, Britons are currently banned from going to the U.S.

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(Reporting by Sarah YoungEditing by Keith Weir and Kate Holton)

CDC discourages Americans from travel despite ‘low risk’ to vaccinated people

By David Shepardson and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday said people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can safely travel at “low risk” but still discouraged Americans from doing so because of high coronavirus cases nationwide.

The CDC’s shift in guidance should be a shot in the arm for the travel industry, which is still struggling from the dip in passengers since the onset of the pandemic in 2020.

But CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters that, despite the new guidance for vaccinated people, now was not a good time to take a trip.

“We know that right now we have a surging number of cases. I would advocate against general travel overall,” she said. “We are not recommending travel at this time, especially for unvaccinated individuals.”

The CDC had held off changing its travel guidance even as vaccinations increased, irking the travel industry.

Its new guidance on Friday seemed to be an attempt to thread a needle of acknowledging that vaccines made travel significantly safer while seeking to thwart a big increase until more people have had their shots.

The new guidance greenlights vaccinated grandparents getting on airplanes to see grandchildren, for example, and says COVID-19 testing and quarantining are not necessary before or after travel as long as take precautions such as wearing masks and maintaining social distance.

A group representing major U.S. airlines including American Airlines, Delta Air lines, United Airlines Southwest Airlines and other trade groups had urged the CDC on March 22 to immediately update its guidance to say “vaccinated individuals can travel safely.” Air travel still remains down 43% from pre-COVID levels and business and international travel remain even harder hit.

Roger Dow, chief executive of the U.S. Travel Association, said the “new travel guidance is a major step in the right direction that is supported by the science and will take the brakes off the industry that has been hardest hit by the fallout of COVID by far.”

The administration is not lifting restrictions that bar most-non U.S. citizens from the United States who have recently been in China, Brazil, South Africa and most of Europe. It is also keeping requirements that nearly all international U.S. air visitors getting a negative COVID-19 test before traveling to the United States.

A U.S. official briefed on the matter said the Biden administration is beginning to have conversations about how and when it might eventually lift those travel restrictions but no change is imminent. The United States also still maintains restrictions at the Canadian and Mexican borders that bar non-essential visitors.

The CDC’s new guidance says fully vaccinated people do not need COVID-19 tests before international travel unless it is required by the international destination and vaccinated people returning from foreign travel do not need to self-quarantine after returning to the United States, unless required by state or local authorities.

The CDC had repeatedly declined in recent weeks to change the guidance and repeated it was still discouraging all non-essential travel because of a concern about new variants.

Many Americans have not been heeding the CDC’s advice.

The Transportation Security Administration screened 1.56 million people at U.S. airports on Thursday, just below Sunday’s 1.57 million, which was the highest daily total since March 2020. The last time the number of airport passengers screened was below 1 million was March 10.

The Biden administration has taken steps to reduce international travel and mandated masks in nearly all forms of public transit. The administration is not eliminating any mask rules.

The administration is sticking by its goal that all adults will be eligible for vaccines in the coming weeks. Infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci told reporters that studies showed children would be able to be vaccinated, too.

“There are studies under way in children that go from six months to 11 years. And by the end of this year we should have enough information to be able to safely vaccinate children of virtually any age,” he said.

(Reporting by David Shepardson and Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Marguerita Choy)

One year into pandemic, sky begins to clear over U.S. economy

By Ann Saphir and Howard Schneider

SAN FRANCISCO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Despite the U.S. economy’s near miss with a depression last year and an ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has brought travel to a virtual halt, Jeff Hurst, the chief executive of vacation rental firm VRBO, sees a boom on the horizon.

“Every house is going to be taken this summer,” Hurst said, as the expected protection from vaccines arrives in step with warmer weather, unleashing a cooped-up population with record savings stashed away. “There’s so much built-up demand for it.”

That sort of bullish sentiment has increasingly taken root among executives, analysts and consumers who see the past year of comparative hibernation – from the government-ordered business closings last spring to continued risk avoidance by the public – giving way to a cautious re-emergence and green shoots in the economy.

Data from AirDNA, a short-term rental analytics firm, showed vacation bookings for the end of March, which traditionally coincides with college spring breaks, are just 2% below their pre-pandemic level. Employment openings on job site Indeed are 4% above a pre-pandemic baseline. Data on retail foot traffic, air travel and seated diners at restaurants have all edged up.

And economists’ forecasts have risen en masse, with firms like Oxford Economics seeing a “juiced-up” economy hitting 7% growth this year, more typical of a developing country.

In a symbolic milestone, Major League Baseball teams took to the field on Sunday, as scheduled, for the first games of the spring training season. Crowds were required to observe social distancing rules and limited to around 20% of capacity, but MLB has a full schedule penciled in following a truncated 2020 season that did not begin until July and saw teams playing in empty stadiums.

DEPRESSION DODGED

As of Feb. 25, about 46 million people in the United States had received at least their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine – still less than 15% of the population and not enough to dampen the spread of a virus that has killed more than half a million people in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The emergence of coronavirus variants poses risks, and a return to normal life before immunity is widespread could give the virus a fresh foothold.

Nor is optimism global. The European short-term rental market, for example, is suffering, with tens of thousands of Airbnb offerings pulled. Up to one-fifth of the supply has disappeared in cities like Lisbon and Berlin, as owners and managers adjust to a choppy vaccine rollout and doubts about the resumption of cross-border travel.

In the United States, the vaccine rollout and a sharp decline in new cases has produced an economic outlook unthinkable a year ago when the Federal Reserve opened its emergency playbook in a terse promise of action and Congress approved the first of several rescue efforts.

The fear then was years of stunted output similar to the Great Depression of the 1930s, while some projections foresaw millions of deaths and an extended national quarantine. Instead, the first vaccines were distributed before the end of 2020, and a record fiscal and monetary intervention led to a rise in personal incomes, something unheard of in a recession.

“We are not living the downside case we were so concerned about the first half of the year,” Fed Chair Jerome Powell told lawmakers on Wednesday. “We have a prospect of getting back to a much better place in the second half of this year.”

‘ROCK ON’

U.S. gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic output, may top its pre-pandemic level this summer, approaching the “V-shaped” rebound that seemed unrealistic a few weeks ago.

That would still mean more than a year of lost growth, but nevertheless represents a recovery twice as fast as the rebound from the 2007-2009 recession.

Jobs have not followed as fast. The economy remains about 10 million positions short of where it was in February 2020, and that hole remains a pressing problem for policymakers alongside getting schools and public services fully reopened.

It took six years after the last recession to reach the prior employment peak, a glacial process officials desperately want to shorten.

While recent months have seen little progress, the outlook may be improving. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in mid-February the country had a fighting chance to reach full employment next year.

It may take more than vaccines, however. Officials are debating how fully and permanently to rewrite the rules of crisis response – and specifically how much and what elements of the Biden administration’s proposed $1.9 trillion rescue plan to approve.

Fiscal leaders last year cast aside many old totems, including fear of public debt and a preoccupation with “moral hazard” – the bad incentives that generous public benefits or corporate bailouts can create. For Republicans, that meant approving initial unemployment insurance benefits that often exceeded a laid-off worker’s salary; for Democrats, it meant aiding airlines and temporarily relaxing banking regulations.

It worked, and so well that an odd consortium of doubters has emerged to question how much more is necessary: Republicans arguing help should be aimed only at those in need, and some Democrats worrying that so much more government spending in an economy primed to accelerate may spark inflation or problems in financial markets.

If the outlook is improving, however, it’s in anticipation that government support will continue at levels adequate to finish the job.

“Rock on,” Bank of America analysts wrote in a Feb. 22 note boosting their full-year GDP growth forecast to 6.5%, an outcome premised on approval of $1.7 trillion in additional government relief, “unambiguously positive” health news, and stronger consumer data. Given all that, “we expect the economy to accelerate further in the spring and really come to life in the summer.”

And the view back at VRBO? In most prime vacation spots, Hurst said, “You won’t be able to find a home.”

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Dan Burns and Paul Simao)

Vaccine passports: path back to normality or problem in the making?

By Natalie Thomas

LONDON (Reuters) – Governments and developers around the world are exploring the potential use of “vaccine passports” as a way of reopening the economy by identifying those protected against the coronavirus.

Those developing the technologies however, say such tools come with consequences such as potentially excluding whole groups from social participation, and are urging lawmakers to think seriously about how they are used.

The travel and entertainment industries, which have struggled to operate at a profit while imposing social distancing regulations, are particularly interested in a way of swiftly checking who has protection.

Among those developing passports are biometrics company iProov and cyber security firm Mvine which have built a vaccine pass now being tested within Britain’s National Health Service after receiving UK government funding.

iProov founder and chief executive Andrew Bud believes such vaccine passports only really need to hold two pieces of information.

“One is, has this person been vaccinated? And the other is, what does this person look like?”

You need only match a face to a vaccination status, you don’t need to know a person’s identity, he added.

Confirmation of patrons’ vaccination status could help the night-time economy, which employs some 420,000 people in the northern English city of Manchester, off its knees, experts say.

“We have to look at how to get back to normal,” said Sacha Lord, an industry adviser and co-founder of the city’s Parklife music festival.

While there have been experiments in socially distanced concerts and events over the last year, they weren’t financially viable, he said.

“A gig isn’t a gig or a festival isn’t a festival unless you are stood shoulder to shoulder with your friends.

“I don’t think we should be forcing people into the vaccine passports. It should be a choice. But on entry, if you don’t have that passport, then we will give you another option,” he added, suggesting the use of rapid result coronavirus tests.

Bud said vaccine certificates were being rolled out in some countries, and in the United Sates, some private sector health passes were being used to admit customers to sports events.

“I think vaccine certificates raise huge social and political issues. Our job is to provide the technology basis for making vaccine passports and certificates possible … It is not our place to make judgments about whether they are a good idea or not,” he said.

Potential issues could arise around discrimination, privilege and exclusion of the younger generation who would be last in line to be vaccinated, he said, adding he believed government was giving it careful consideration.

(Reporting by Natalie Thomas; Writing by Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

U.S. driving falls 11.1% in November as COVID-19 cases rise

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Travel on U.S. roads fell 11.1% in November, a steeper decline over October road use as coronavirus cases increased, the U.S. Transportation Department said Friday.

The U.S. government said drivers logged 231.6 billion vehicle miles in November, down from 260.5 billion in the same month in 2019. By comparison, October driving fell by 8.8%. For the first 11 months of 2020, U.S. drivers logged 410 billion fewer miles, down 13.7%, to 2.58 trillion, the lowest figure for that period since 2001.

(Reporting by David Shepardson)

Airbnb CEO says travel never going back to the way it was before pandemic

By Subrat Patnaik

(Reuters) – Airbnb Chief Executive Officer Brian Chesky on Thursday predicted travel would permanently change due to the pandemic with people seeking out thousands of smaller cities and spending more time visiting friends and family.

Traditional tourism and sightseeing at top global destinations would be significantly reduced by travelers who will drive to smaller communities and fly less for business meetings.

The startup was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 and its business dropped by 80% in a little over eight weeks.

However, as lockdowns eased, more travelers opted to book homes instead of hotels, helping Airbnb post a surprise profit for the third quarter. The San Francisco-based firm gained from increased interest in renting homes away from major cities.

The home rental firm went public in a blockbuster initial public offering in December, its shares more than doubling in their stock market debut. Shares of Airbnb rose as much as 10% to record high of $187.42 on Thursday.

WILL NOT FACILITATE VIOLENCE

The rental platform has been canceling home-sharing reservations in the Washington D.C. area for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration’s next Wednesday after law enforcement warned of a threat from armed militias.

Speaking during the Reuters Next conference, Chesky recalled the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and said that he did not want the platform facilitating people traveling to commit violence in communities.

Airbnb made the decision after consulting local and federal officials and after a number of hosts worried about potential attacks sought to cancel bookings.

However, major hotel chains including Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc and Marriott International have said they planned to uphold existing reservations.

(Reporting by Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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)

U.S. disease experts: Don’t travel for Thanksgiving

By Rebecca Spalding and Manojna Maddipatla

(Reuters) – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday urged Americans not to travel during next week’s Thanksgiving holiday to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus as cases of COVID-19 spike around the United States.

The travel advice is a “strong recommendation,” not a requirement, CDC official Henry Walke said on a call with reporters. The federal agency said it was making the recommendation after many states across the country experienced a surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks.

“We’re alarmed with the exponential increase in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths,” Walke said.

The CDC advised against gathering with anyone who has not lived in the same household for at least 14 days, the incubation period for the coronavirus. Officials said they were also posting recommendations on their website on how to stay safe during the holidays for those Americans who do choose to travel.

“It is the right advice. We are in a major surge in the U.S. with hospitals inundated,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said at a Reuters forum. “There are some that will travel nonetheless, but, hopefully, they will put in place some common-sense measures to limit the damage the virus can cause.”

While the CDC recommended virtual gatherings, for those who do gather in person, guests should bring their own food and utensils and celebrate outdoors if possible, it said.

If celebrating indoors, it recommends that Americans open windows and put fans in front of open windows to pull fresh air into the room where guests are sitting. It also suggests limiting the number of people near where food is being prepared.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is typically the busiest travel day of the year in the United States, as Americans gather with friends and family around the country. Shares in airlines and hotel companies have plummeted since the outbreak began as government officials have advised against unnecessary travel.

The AAA travel agency has said it anticipates at least a 10 percent drop in the number of travelers this Thanksgiving, the largest single-year drop since 2008. Based on its October models, it forecasts 50 million Americans will travel for the holiday, compared with 55 million in 2019.

With the CDC recommendations, it expects that number now to be even lower.

United Airlines, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines each said on Thursday that bookings were weakening due to the spike in COVID-19 cases, and United said cancellations were rising.

(Reporting by Rebecca Spalding, Tracy Rucinski, David Shepardson and Lisa Pauline Mattackal; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and Peter Henderson)