Airlines face an uncertain few weeks as the spread of the omicron coronavirus variant upends what’s traditionally one of the busiest periods of the year for flight sales.
Ryanair Holdings Plc slashed its earnings guidance Wednesday as travel restrictions related to the strain weakened Christmas and New Year bookings. Other carriers will likely be assessing their capacity plans, according to Bernstein analyst Alex Irving.
“Ryanair, EasyJet and Wizz Air all operate in broadly the same market,” he said. “It’s highly unlikely the same pressures affecting Ryanair aren’t hitting other airlines.”
Although airline stocks rallied Thursday following reports that omicron is likely not as severe as previous iterations, countries across Europe are bringing back travel restrictions and even lockdowns. Britain is battling record daily case numbers and France and Germany’s ban on U.K. travelers was part of the reason for Ryanair’s gloom.
While Ryanair opted to update the market, other carriers may hold off until they report their next set of financial results, Irving said. In the meantime, close-in bookings are likely to be particularly impacted as people postpone trips.
The latest variant has disrupted a nascent travel recovery that began in summer, when Europe responded to a successful Covid-19 vaccine rollout by reopening borders and transatlantic travel resumed. Carriers had added capacity for the winter months, betting on pent-up demand in what’s traditionally a slower season for flights.
The outlook for next year is still hard to assess, according to Irving, with everything dependent on how serious the omicron variant tuns out to be. If it’s less dangerous than delta, as has been suggested by reports out of South Africa, travel bookings could bounce back quickly as governments relax restrictions.
In the short-term, bookings for Christmas may hold up despite the headlines as people prioritize seeing friends and family or take long-awaited holidays.
Airport trade body ACI Europe said Thursday the omicron impact on European passenger traffic has been “immediate and substantial,” reporting a 20% fall in the three weeks starting Nov. 24. Still, passenger traffic increased by 9% last week as the festive season began and people maintained their Christmas travel plans.
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