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Science & Medicine

As The Delta Variant Soars, The Airline Industry Descends Into Another Slump

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Airports won't be as busy this Labor Day weekend compared to earlier this summer as the airline industry appears to be heading into another slump. Travel bookings are down, and more would-be travelers are canceling plans as the delta variant spreads. NPR's David Schaper has that story.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Flying an airplane should not feel like a roller coaster, but it sure does for the airline industry. After the number of people flying plummeted a whopping 96% in the pandemic's early days, it seemed like it might never bounce back. But this spring and early summer, it did. As vaccination rates took off, more and fuller planes did, too. But just as some airlines thought they could finally turn a profit again, demand is falling again.

BRETT SNYDER: I think the fall is increasingly looking a little more lost than they had hoped would be the case.

SCHAPER: Brett Snyder writes The Cranky Flier airline industry blog.

SNYDER: They have started to see some erosion in demand, and they have started to prune their schedules a little bit.

SCHAPER: Snyder says, across the board, airlines are now cutting flights from their fall schedules. Adobe Digital Insights tracks flight booking data, and lead analyst Vivek Pandya says in June, bookings were rising so quickly they neared 2019's record levels. But since then...

VIVEK PANDYA: We're starting to see this really dramatic drawdown in terms of bookings, especially for this late summer period, that we don't typically see.

SCHAPER: The reason is the sharp rise in COVID-19 cases.

PANDYA: As the sort of variant was definitely taking root and impacting a lot of travel plans and considerations around travel, that's when we started to see that momentum slow.

SCHAPER: Pandya says flight bookings for August were down 33% compared to August of 2019, and the number of people going through the TSA's airport security checkpoints this week fell to its lowest level since early May. Cranky Flier's Brett Snyder notes that while leisure travel always slows this time of year as kids return to school, what's notable is the delta variant's effect on prospective business travel.

SNYDER: There were good signs that that was starting - that the recovery was really starting to kick into gear on the business travel side. But the delta variant has thrown that for a loop.

SCHAPER: And the EU's decision this week to remove the U.S. from its safe travel list and recommend that member nations reinstate travel restrictions on unvaccinated Americans will likely further reduce air travel demand. The CDC says it is safe for those who are fully vaccinated to fly, but the big surge in delta-variant COVID cases among the unvaccinated is leading to growing calls for the federal government to require shots in arms in order to board a plane.

PAUL WEINSTEIN: This is really something the airlines themselves should probably want because it provides a peace of mind to the passengers.

SCHAPER: Paul Weinstein is a professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins University, and he argues that mandating vaccines for those who travel not only will help slow the spread of the deadly virus, but it's also good for the airline business.

WEINSTEIN: I mean, if you know that everyone on the plane has been vaccinated, then you're much more likely to not cancel your travel plans and therefore not hurt the airline's bottom line.

SCHAPER: Weinstein and others say requiring a vaccine for air travel could be the nudge some of the unvaccinated need to get the shot. But even as the Biden administration extends the mask mandate to board planes, trains and buses, for now it appears unwilling to mandate vaccines for interstate travel.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.