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US travellers cancel flights amid COVID spike

written by Hannah Dowling | November 23, 2020

Image from Flickr (Bill Abbott)

Airlines in the United States have flagged that future bookings have slowed, and cancellations are on the rise, as the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to push towards 200,000 per day.

The surge of virus cases resulted in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday urging Americans not to travel around the country for Thanksgiving.

As a result, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines have both announced a slowdown in bookings and an uptick of cancellations.

According to United, within the past week, “there has been a deceleration in system bookings and an uptick in cancellations as a result of the recent spike in COVID-19 cases.”

The Chicago-based carrier also said it expects to operate at no more than 45 per cent of its normal schedule in the fourth quarter, and continues to forecast a 67 per cent decline in revenue compared with last year’s fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, Southwest has said bookings were rising for the holidays but so too are cancellations.

Further, this outcome has dampened the airline’s recovery prospects, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly expects that when the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons are over, leisure traveller demand will drop significantly.


“I’m not real optimistic that the first quarter [of 2021] is going to improve much from the current levels of demand,” said Kelly. 

“It will be wintertime, and we’ve already seen seasonally the uptick in the cases, and that’s concerning.”

It comes just over a week after industry association Airlines 4 America actively encouraged individuals to fly and visit family over the holiday period, and airlines in the US began gearing up for an uptick in travel demand.

“I hope you’re flying somewhere” for the holiday season, A4A president Nicholas Calio said during a media briefing. “I am,” he added.

A4A data suggested at that time that airlines including JetBlue and United Airlines had ramped up their flight schedules for the holidays, to hit around 61 per cent of 2019 levels. 

“We do expect a bump for Thanksgiving,” said A4A chief economist John Heimlich during the Thursday briefing, with Calio adding that traveller numbers are still expected to be “a lot less” than the 31 million who flew during the same season in 2019.

Noting public health concerns, Calio reiterated, “You’re safer on an airplane than you are in a grocery store [or] a bar”. 

However, this comment does not address the significant public concern of travelling and socialising during the holiday season.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned Americans of the dangers of travelling and attending small holiday gatherings during the pandemic. 

The public health organisation stated that intimate get-togethers with family and friends are an “important contributor to the rise in COVID-19 cases” currently being seen across the country.

Since the announcement, a number of cities and states have issued mandatory stay-at-home orders in an attempt to curb the spread.

The US saw its largest daily increase in COVID-19 cases on Friday, with more than 198,000 cases reported within a 24-hour period.


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