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Illustration by Security Management

Travel Shows Signs of an Uneven Rebound

As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to recede in several areas—including the United States and much of Europe—travel restrictions are becoming less, well, restrictive.

One big sign that travel is on its way back was a travel surge in the United States for Memorial Day weekend. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said that Friday, 28 May, was the highest airport travel day since March 2020, with 1.96 million people screened, according to Reuters. From Thursday through Sunday, TSA reported 7.1 million screenings, with Monday numbers expected to rival or exceed Friday.

Based on its surveys and analysis, AAA forecast a 60 percent increase in Memorial Day holiday travel, with 37 million people expected to travel at least 50 miles over the weekend.

The European Union has been working on protocols to open borders to less restrictive travel for weeks. The EU Digital COVID Certificate to verify vaccine status is expected to be up and running in a month. So far, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, and Poland have made the digital certificates available to their citizens and are accepting them for visitors. How the digital certificate program will work for Americans—which has no single repository of COVID-19 vaccination statuses—is unclear.

Easing of restrictions is occurring in other places, as well. Abu Dhabi announced the end of 10-day mandatory quarantines beginning 1 July. After the United States was given an amber rating in the United Kingdom’s stoplight-based rating systems (meaning 10-day quarantines were mandatory), there are reports that the two countries may reach an agreement about more open travel soon. And while not exactly an opening to business or leisure travel, athletes are starting to travel to Japan for the rescheduled Summer Olympics.

Still, there are many indications that international travel will change rapidly. For example, citing concerns of spread of the India variant of COVID-19 (which is newly dubbed the “Delta” variant by the World Health Organization), France placed new restrictions on travel from the United Kingdom.

And several countries with more restrictive policies are seeing increased pressure to ease restrictions. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was criticized because his government said travel restrictions may not ease until the middle of 2022, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing increasing pressure to ease restrictions. And then there’s the controversy over the efficacy of vaccines approved by different countries and whether countries will, or should, restrict travel based on the type of vaccine a traveler received.

With all the change, there are resources prospective travelers can use to see what restrictions are currently in place. The travel company Kayak has an interactive map it updates regularly. In addition, the U.S. State Department keeps an updated map of its travel recommendations for U.S. citizens.

Much of the emphasis on travel restrictions and the possibility of a travel bounce-back has been focused on the leisure market. Investment news publisher AlphaStreet analyzed reports and statements from Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and United Airlines, and noted that the companies were “seeing a healthy pickup in demand for leisure travel while business travel remains pressured.” The Wall Street Journal found that corporate travel is still 70 percent or more below prepandemic levels. The report notes, however, that business travel is showing the first sounds of a rebound.

“They’re getting their office opened, feeling comfortable with that as the first steps, and then travel comes after that,” said Alison Taylor, chief customer officer for American Airlines.

A survey from the U.S. Census Bureau showed that 35 percent of small business owners expect to have travel expenses in the near future. That percentage has climbed approximately 5 percent in each of the past two months.

A return of business travel will be critical to the overall travel sector. According to the Journal article, business travel accounted for approximately 30 percent of trips and 50 percent of revenue before the dramatic decline in travel after the pandemic struck.

As is common with just about any examination of assessments and predictions while the world emerges from pandemic lows, business travel trends are mixed. American Express’s Global Business Spend Indicator survey of UK firms shows an overall prediction of a decline in business travel and entertainment expenses of 0.3 percent from the first quarter of 2021 to the second quarter.

And finally, no post on travelling trends would be complete without mention of the dramatic increase in unruly passenger behavior. Last week, video emerged of a passenger assaulting a flight attendant on a Southwest flight, knocking out her teeth. The passenger was charged with felony battery and is permanently banned from flying Southwest. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said in early May that a passenger faces more than $30,000 in fines for refusing to wear a mask on a JetBlue flight from the Dominican Republic to New York.

Citing the assault incident and others, a leader of the Transport Workers Union pleaded for additional safeguards for its flight attendant members, saying that on Southwest there have been 477 incidents from 8 April to 15 May. Southwest announced it would not serve alcohol on flights; American Airlines also said it would not serve alcohol onboard, except for first class and business class travlers, to help prevent violence on flights.

At a press conference in advance of the busy Memorial Day weekend travel spike, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas issued a warning to travelers.

“Let me be clear in underscoring something," he said. "It is a federal mandate that one must wear a mask in an airport, in the modes of public transportation, on the airplane itself—and we will not tolerate behavior that violates the law.”