US airlines see cancellations rise amid COVID warnings against Thanksgiving travel

Nov 20, 2020

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Thanksgiving is shaping up to be its usual busy travel period amid the slow days of November and early December, even with the coronavirus pandemic raging.

But busy in 2020 is not the same as busy in 2019. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) anticipates screening more than 6 million travelers over the Thanksgiving week, according to CBS News. While a far cry from the more than 26 million screened a year ago, that would still generate some of the busiest air travel days for the country since COVID-19 hit.

Dampening the traditional familial mood is a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendation that “postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others” from the coronavirus. The warning comes as the seven-day moving average for new infections hit 164,495 people on Nov. 18, a new high in the U.S.

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Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines have all seen the rising case counts hit bookings and, at least for some, increase cancellations.

“We’ve seen a dampening of demand. It really is too soon to tell how deep and how long,” American president Robert Isom said at the Skift Aviation Forum on Nov. 19. His recommendation for Thanksgiving travelers was to follow CDC guidance — though he did not acknowledge the public health organization’s stay-at-home advice.

That same day in an investor update, United attributed a “deceleration in system bookings and an uptick in cancellations” directly to the spike in new COVID cases.

Related: Airlines brace for busy Thanksgiving, urge travelers to fly even as COVID surges across US

It is unclear how much the slowdown in bookings will affect Thanksgiving. While U.S. airlines allow travelers to cancel or change flights without fees, there are questions about how many Americans will cancel their plans with the holiday week already here.

“It is a cautionary note with the COVID cases rising once again,” said Southwest CEO Gary Kelly at the forum. “It’s certainly possible we’re seeing an impact from that — we just don’t know.”

Southwest’s outlook still forecasts sequential improvements in November and December compared to past months, just at a slower rate than before, Kelly added.

Related: CDC recommends staying home for the holidays — Here’s what to do if you may cancel your travel plans

Despite the COVID-19 surge, screenings at TSA checkpoints appear to have begun rising ahead of Thanksgiving. On Thursday (Nov. 19), the number of travelers rose to 907,332 or 37% of a year ago. That’s a percentage point higher than the number a week earlier on Nov,. 12

Any uptick in travel will be much welcomed by airlines who continue to lose millions of dollars a day. However, while multiple studies indicate that flying on a plane is safe, the rise could further the spread of the coronavirus around the country with negative ramifications for the industry.

“Seriously, I don’t think there’s an end in sight until I can line up for that vaccine sometime in the second quarter of next year,” Cowen analyst Helane Becker said at the forum.

Related: Southwest Airlines on full-court press to win back biz flyers, one airport tour at a time

Featured image by Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images.

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