Flight bookings drop earlier than Thanksgiving as coronavirus infections rise

During the global coronavirus pandemic, Ana Ramos, right, will be tested for covid19 at Tom Bradley International on Tuesday, November 17, 2020 in Los Angeles, CA.

Francine Orr | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

Airline executives warned Thursday that bookings were gradually falling as new coronavirus cases break records and government health officials advise against traveling over Thanksgiving.

"As infection rates have increased across the country, demand has certainly dampened," said Robert Isom, president of American Airlines, during the Skift Aviation Forum Thursday. "It is really too early to say how deep and how long it can be in a depressed environment, but we've seen some slowdown in bookings."

Isom's comments came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised the public to avoid traveling over Thanksgiving, usually a busy weekend for airlines when travelers are willing to pay high prices to visit relatives.

The US reported more than 170,100 new cases of the virus on Wednesday. This is the second highest one-day increase reported to date, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC's Covid-19 incident manager, said Thursday the agency was concerned that the virus could spread to the country's "transportation hubs" as people may not be able to maintain physical distance. However, he acknowledged that the CDC's "strong recommendation" is not a requirement and that some might ignore the agency's advice.

The surge in cases and recent warnings pose an additional challenge to U.S. airlines, which have already lost more than $ 20 billion this year as many potential travelers avoid flying. According to the federal government, passenger traffic is around a third of the previous year's level.

On the previous Thursday, United Airlines announced that bookings had slowed and cancellations had increased in the week leading up to Wednesday. This echoed Southwest Airlines' comments last week about slowing demand.

The airlines have launched public relations campaigns to promote increased cleaning of aircraft and their filtration systems, as well as recent research that said it is unlikely to get the virus on board.

But the virus has left the industry in a difficult position to sell seats as it struggles to survive as health officials discourage travel and gatherings to prevent the disease from spreading.

"We keep people safe while they travel, and educate them about science and data so they can make a decision when they want to travel," said Nicholas Calio, CEO of Airlines for America, a trading group that serves most major US airlines represents, in a call with reporters Thursday. "We don't encourage people to travel. Do we want to see them travel? Yes, but only if it's safe for them and there are a variety of factors for each individual traveler."

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