“The entire travel industry, and airlines in particular, like to plan,” said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president for legislative and regulatory policy for Airlines for America, which represents major U.S. airlines. “It takes time to pull planes out of storage. Several carriers have announced they’re bringing pilots back — and that takes time.”
The campaign comes as airlines have seen indications of a sustained turnaround since early February. As the number of coronavirus cases declines and more people are vaccinated, demand for domestic travel has surged. The industry is expecting a similar boost when limits are lifted on international travel.
Several European nations have begun laying out criteria for reopening. Greece recently lifted its ban on visitors from the United States if they provide proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test result within 72 hours of their arrival. France and Spain announced plans to reopen to international visitors. And officials in the United Kingdom hope to restart some international travel by May 17. The European Union is making plans to reopen to U.S. travelers this summer.
“We should be leading,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy for the U.S. Travel Association. “Airlines, airports … all these folks need to be able to prepare. What’s going to be required? We don’t want people to be scrambling.”
The industry for months has lobbied the U.S. government to do away with restrictions that bar most visitors from the Schengen area, a group of 26 countries in Europe. Travel restrictions also were put into place for the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil and in January, South Africa. Some restrictions have been in effect for more than a year.
In January, President Donald Trump announced a plan to end the ban, saying it was unnecessary because beginning Jan. 26, international travelers would need to provide proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding U.S.-bound flights. But within days of taking office, the Biden administration reinstated the ban and added South Africa to the list, citing the need to control the spread of variants.
In a March 22 letter, the coalition of travel and aviation groups said the U.S. had made significant strides in fighting the virus, with cases far below January levels. In the past week, the number of new daily virus cases has dropped by 16.1 percent, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.
The coalition emphasized that while it supports lifting a ban on travelers from certain countries, it wants to keep other measures in place, including requirements that international travelers be tested and that passengers wear masks and maintain distancing when possible.
“To restore confidence, one of the things we could do … to show leadership is to create a road map to recovery and [offer] some transparency about how decisions are made about restricting opening travel,” Nicholas E. Calio, president and chief executive of Airlines for America, said at a recent Senate subcommittee hearing. “We need a road map because until then, it will be difficult.”
While there have been discussions, it’s not clear where a reopening plan fits into the administration’s agenda, which has focused on economic relief, getting Americans vaccinated and pushing an ambitious plan to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. The administration has not publicly indicated a timeline for lifting restrictions and continues to emphasize it will follow guidance from health officials.
“We look forward to the resumption of transatlantic travel as soon as our medical and public health professionals advise,” the State Department said in an emailed statement.
The department earlier this month drastically increased the number of countries with the “Level 4: Do Not Travel” designation, which now includes roughly 80 percent of countries worldwide. Department officials said the change was designed to better reflect information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has continued to recommend against nonessential travel.
“When the science says that it is safe to ease restrictions or if the science requires that we impose additional barriers, whether that pertains to China or any other country, I suspect that’s what you’ll see us do,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said during an April 22 briefing.
The administration has moved forward on some elements of reopening. Earlier this month, the CDC updated guidance on travel for people who have been fully vaccinated.
In cases where the government has not acted, the travel industry has stepped in. Airlines, including United, American and Delta, have unveiled versions of a digital health certificate that allow passengers to upload coronavirus test results, and in some cases, proof they have been fully vaccinated.
International visitors are a lucrative market. According to a 2020 report by the World Travel and Tourism Council, in 2019 they accounted for about $195.1 billion, or about 16 percent, of total travel spending in the United States.
In 2020, the number of international visitors to the United States declined 81 percent, an estimated loss of $146 billion to the economy, the coalition said. The U.S. Travel Association estimates that $262 billion in export spending and 1.1 million jobs could be lost this year if the ban is not lifted.
Health experts say the industry might be able to make a case for reopening, given that more people are vaccinated and measures, including requiring masks aboard planes and in airports, are in place. Many countries also offer preflight testing, which has enabled some to reopen their borders.
The key, experts say, will be weighing the risk of new variants against economic benefits and the need to resume normal life. Laura Albert, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said the United States has reached a point where it can start to contemplate how it might reopen more widely, including to more travelers from abroad.
“We’re in a different place than we were a year ago,” said Albert, whose work focuses on analyzing risk in public spaces. “Last year, it was, ‘No, don’t do it.' It wasn’t clear it was safe to be on a plane. This year, it’s how and where you go, not whether.”
Ajay Sethi, an epidemiologist and associate professor of population health sciences at Wisconsin, said travel always has been linked with the spread of viruses, but as more people are vaccinated, the risk is reduced. The wild card, however, is the possibility of new variants.
“So far, none of the variants are all that invincible, but over time that can change,” he said. “My general thought is that these restrictions are important but not as important now. They don’t have a lot of relevance unless you are talking about a variant of concern.”
U.S. air carriers are eager to see international markets reopen, emphasizing that a full recovery will remain elusive until they do.
“We have seen in recent weeks that immediately after a country opens access with proof of a vaccine, leisure demand returns to the level of 2019 quickly,” Andrew Nocella, chief commercial officer for United Airlines, said during a recent earnings call. “A few weeks ago, there was a rumor Greece was going to open. As soon as that rumor occurred, our Greece bookings took off.”
During the same call, Scott Kirby, United’s chief executive, said he doesn’t expect all international borders to reopen until next year, but he foresees strong demand for those that do. If borders do not open more broadly, he said, one possibility would be to reopen “travel corridors” between countries, such the U.S. and U.K.
Said Kirby: “If the U.S., U.K. opens up, I think you’re going to have a hard time finding a hotel room in the U.K. because there’s going to be so many people wanting to go.”