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People jokingly throw around the phrase "have vaccine, will travel" as Covid-19 inoculations roll out. But the phrase appears poised to take on some gravity with the CEO of United Airlines saying vaccines are a likely to a prerequisite as long-haul travel comes back.

United Airlines is eager for long-haul international travel to return, with the segment critical to its returning to profitability after the dark days of the coronavirus pandemic.

But if Americans want to relax on Greek beaches or see the Eiffel Tower this summer, the Chicago-based carrier’s CEO Scott Kirby says they will likely need a Covid-19 vaccine.

“For anybody who wants to travel long-haul — go to Europe this summer, or go to New Zealand or Australia [during] the North American winter, I expect you’re going to have to have a vaccine,” United CEO Scott Kirby said during a Washington Post Live event on Thursday.

Nearly 55 percent of Americans 18 years of age and older had received at least one shot of a Covid-19 vaccine as of Thursday, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. By comparison, only 26 percent of EU citizens over 18 had received a shot, data from the bloc shows.

And at United, Kirby said between 50 and 60 percent of staff are now vaccinated.

Kirby’s rationale that travelers will need vaccines is based on firm logic. The first European countries to reopen to American visitors, including Croatia, Iceland and Greece, all require proof of vaccination from travelers. And, just this week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU was considering reopening to vaccinated Americans this summer. Similar rules are expected for the proposed U.S.-UK travel corridor.

Earlier in April, United unveiled plans for new nonstop flights to Croatia, Iceland and Greece this summer. And, despite concerns about vaccine hesitancy in the U.S., bookings for the new flights are “through the roof,” said Kirby.

Beyond those select countries, Kirby said the news of the EU and maybe the UK reopening to vaccinated Americans this summer is “encouraging.” His comment echoes thoses made by Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr, whose airlines are partners of United and rely heavily on transatlantic travelers, also on Thursday.

United needs 65 percent of business and long-haul international travel to resume before it can return to profitability. Both were mainstays of its business before the crisis with U.S. domestic leisure travel — the only segment that has significantly recovered to date — amounting to only about a third of the airline’s revenues. United expects business travelers to begin returning in earnest from September.

In other words, the leisure-led recovery this summer is unlikely enough to turn the tide of red ink to black in United’s financial statements.

“It’s an open question, towards the end of this year or early next year is my best guess,” said Kirby when asked when United could next turn a profit.

That’s not to say the airline lacks optimism for the summer. United plans to fly roughly 55 percent of its 2019 passenger capacity in the second quarter. That is split heavily in favor of domestic where 64 percent will fly compared to just 36 percent internationally, according to Cirium schedule data. Schedules for the rest of the summer, including July and August, are not yet finalized.

In addition, United will have more opportunities to generate revenue this summer than it has in recent months. The airline is reinstalling six seats to each of its 190 Embraer E175 jets — the most common aircraft in the United Express fleet — after removing them last year, and launching more than 20 new seasonal routes targeting beach-bound vacationers.

Kirby, for one, is personally positive about Europe reopening to vaccinated Americans. He already has plans to take his family there this summer, he said.

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Tags: coronavirus recovery, united airlines

Photo credit: United's CEO expects travelers will need a vaccine for long-haul international travel. Markus Eigenheer/FlugZüge / Flickr

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