The US is open again. Britons and Europeans are now able to fly across the Atlantic to America; the land borders with Canada and Mexico are open too. It is a huge event for the airline industry, particularly for British Airways, as Heathrow to JFK in New York is the second busiest long-haul flight in the world, just behind JFK to San Francisco.
Or at least it was in 2019 before the pandemic struck. And that raises a wider question. To what extent will the new normal be different from the old normal? International air travel is just one element, a very visible one, of a much wider issue. We have seen European airlines back to about two-thirds of their pre-pandemic levels over the summer, but you would expect that. Next year, Ryanair is hoping to carry 165 million passengers, against its 150 million pre-Covid target. So it thinks that the new normal for European air travel will actually be bigger than the old normal. But that is short-haul and mostly leisure travel. Business travel is the great contributor to revenues on the North Atlantic routes, and the shadows over that are larger.
So far we can only guess. There will be a burst of pent-up demand as families reunite and postponed travels plans are reinstated. But it will take several months before the industry settles down, and we simply do not know whether and when air travel will indeed get back to its pre-pandemic peak. The outcome will depend on social choice – is foreign travel something we will prioritise or have our habits and values been irrevocably changed? – as much as what we are permitted to do by the various national authorities.
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