Airlines have renewed their push for a UK-U.S. travel corridor following both countries' largely successful vaccination campaigns. But their arguments have fallen on seemingly deaf ears so far, raising doubts as to whether this latest push will make any difference.
It’s a move they see as potentially becoming the “poster child” for a greater global reopening of travel as Covid-19 vaccination rates rise.
Speaking in a rare joint video conference from both sides of the Atlantic on Monday, the CEOs of American Airlines, British Airways, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic reiterated the same old arguments for a corridor: that travel is safe with vaccinations or negative Covid-19 tests; the economic losses to the entire travel industry — and national economies — are steep; as are the personal costs for families and friends separated by closed borders.
They did not indicate what makes now different from several months ago when calls for a UK-U.S. travel corridor began. The biggest change is simply time: The summer travel season has begun with little to no movement on reopening one of the largest long-haul international markets in the world. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have focused on keeping their respective population safe from the coronavirus — and its variants — amid national vaccination programs.
The push comes on the eve of the G7 Summit that begins Friday. The leaders of the UK, U.S. and the five other largest global economies will meet in Cornwall. There, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. President Joseph Biden are expected to discuss travel between the two countries, which was effectively closed early in the pandemic. However, there has been little indication that establishing a travel corridor is high on the priority list for either Biden or Johnson at the summit as they deal with, for example, establishing a global minimum tax for corporations.
The airline CEOs seemingly tugged on the economic heartstrings of G7 leaders. They estimated that reopening just UK-U.S. travel would be a $2.8 billion (£2 billion) boost to the UK economy, and a $4 billion boost to the U.S. economy this summer. This compares to the $32.6 million in daily economic losses to the former from keeping the corridor closed.
A travel corridor would likely require the UK add the U.S. to its “green list” of countries where its citizens can travel safely without a quarantine when they return home. And the U.S. would need to remove the country from its list — known as 212(f) — of places whose citizens are barred from entering the U.S. during the Covid-19 pandemic.
For now, flights between the UK and U.S. remain at historic lows. Airline capacity is down more than 82 percent in June — the normally busy beginning to the transatlantic summer travel season — compared to the same month in 2019, according to Cirium schedule data.
“I think it’s the first time since World War II that we’ve had such limited movements,” British Airways CEO Sean Doyle said of London’s Heathrow Airport during the briefing.
High vaccination rates in the UK and U.S. is a central point in the airline CEOs’ case for a corridor. In the former, nearly 77 percent of all adults had received a Covid-19 vaccine as of June 6, government data show. And in the latter, 63.5 percent of adults had received at least one dose as of the same day, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Proof of vaccination is expected as a requirement for a possible travel corridor, said American CEO Doug Parker. Negative PCR tests are also a possibility, he added.
“We are going to open up the world, and this is the corridor to get started,” said Delta CEO Ed Bastian.
One big question looming over airline leaders is whether a corridor could come too late for summer travel. The holidaygoers that are expected to be among the first to take advantage of a reopening often book flights weeks or months in advance. And while that booking window has shrunk dramatically during the pandemic, several CEOs acknowledged that many Americans and Britons have already made their summer plans.
“Normally, we’d never try to fly across the Atlantic with a four-week window to take bookings but, in this case, it’s important to just reestablish those links. It’s important to confidence,” United CEO Scott Kirby said. He added that the airline could restart UK-U.S. flights with just a four-week lead time.
JetBlue is planning an even more daring feat: launching its very first transatlantic flights to London Heathrow in August without even knowing whether the market will be open to travelers.
All said, airlines have reported strong transatlantic bookings where countries have reopened to vaccinated travelers. This includes Croatia, Greece and Iceland, and more recently France and Italy. If anything, Covid-19 has turned traditional travel — and booking — patterns on its head creating the potential for a surge in UK-U.S. travel whenever a corridor does open.
“We’re ready,” said Parker, whose initial failed attempt to get his microphone working during the briefing was just the latest example of the limits of videoconferencing technology — and why airlines are confident travelers are ready to fly again.
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Photo credit: The largest airlines flying between the UK and U.S. are pushing leaders at the G7 Summit to reopen travel. Terminal 5 Insider / Flickr