As the world awaits hard data on the likely impact of the Omicron variant of Covid-19, airlines also face slim-pickings when it comes to indictors of how travel demand will respond.
During a briefing on 8 December, IATA cited some short-term capacity reductions and a “slight” fall in forward bookings, but said a confident assessment of the effect of Omicron is some way off.
That is partly because of the lack of health data, but also because airlines are operating in a much-changed landscape compared with even 12 months ago, when the Delta variant began to dent recovery hopes.
Crucially, where travel is possible, consumers have likely become hardier in their response to government restrictions and the risks posed by Covid-19. Granted, some people will still judge the effort, risks and costs involved in travelling to be too much, but a significant proportion might not.
“My strong belief is that consumers are getting used to it much more quickly than governments are,” said IATA director general Willie Walsh of the pandemic, adding that people are “learning to live with the virus” much more quickly than those governing them.
“We’ve all become experts in the variants, viruses, we’ve all known that there would be new variants discovered, and we’re just waiting for what they are going to call it,” he states.
Walsh calls on governments to present the data on travel risks and allow individuals to make their minds up, noting that many governments have tightened borders too late to stop Omicron entering their countries.
Helpfully, it emerged in recent days that the industry has an ally on that very point in the shape of the World Health Organization, which is clearly mindful of the negative impact of ‘red-listing’ countries during the pandemic.
“Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread [of Covid-19], and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” the global body said in response to the Omicron variant. “In addition, they can adversely impact global health efforts during a pandemic by disincentivizing countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data.”
However Omicron plays out, the airline industry might take heart that the appetite for restricting travel in response to the pandemic is waning in some of the right places.