Risk of catching Omicron abroad delays airline recovery

BEFORE the Omicron variant of coronavirus burst onto the scene in November, retired Australian Glenn Turnley was looking forward to a three-week trip to Japan, Britain and France in March – his first overseas jaunt since the pandemic began.

Even though he is fully vaccinated and boosted, Turnley says the high transmissibility of Omicron means he is likely to cancel – even if Japan opens its borders to foreigners.

“I was worried less with Delta because the vaccines that were available, they seemed to be doing the trick,” he said.

“I don’t want to spend any part of a holiday in quarantine or anything like that anywhere, especially in a foreign country.”

While the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 infection is potentially less severe, for many airlines it is proving as disruptive as the Delta variant and has dampened the first quarter outlook.

Its high transmissibility has led to tighter border rules in many countries and heightened the risk of even fully vaccinated travellers testing positive after they arrive and then being stranded at the destination for weeks, denting confidence.

“Clearly there are uncertainties so if you catch COVID you may get stuck in a country which is quite unpredictable to you,” said Jozsef Varadi, chief executive of European low-cost airline Wizz Air (WIZZ.L), which also operates in Abu Dhabi.

“So I don’t think that demand is fully back but we are certainly seeing some people who might be prepared to take more risk in life in general coming back to travel.”

Omicron’s speed of spread leading to staff shortages and shortened COVID-19 test timeframes makes it a major concern, said Olivier Ponti, vice president of insights at travel trends firm ForwardKeys.

ForwardKeys data shows international flight bookings are running at 38% of 2019 levels, well below an October peak of 58%, though up from an early December low.