Airline executives warned Thursday that bookings are starting to drop as new coronavirus cases hit records and government health officials advise against travel over Thanksgiving.
"Certainly with the increase in infection rates really throughout the country we've seen a dampening of demand," American Airlines President Robert Isom said during the Skift Aviation Forum on Thursday. "It's really too soon to tell how deep and how long there may be a depressed environment but we've seen some weakening of bookings."
Isom's comments came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised the public to avoid travel over Thanksgiving, typically a busy weekend for airlines when travelers are willing to pay high prices to visit relatives.
The U.S. reported more than 170,100 new cases of the virus on Wednesday, the second-highest one-day spike reported to date, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC's Covid-19 incident manager, on Thursday said the agency is concerned that the virus could spread at the country's "transportation hubs," because people might not be able to maintain physical distancing. However, he acknowledged that the CDC's "strong recommendation" isn't a requirement and that some might choose to ignore the agency's advice.
The spike in cases and the latest warnings are an added challenge for U.S. carriers that have already lost more than $20 billion this year as many potential travelers avoid flying. Passenger traffic is hovering at about a third of last year's levels, according to federal data.
Airlines have rolled out public relations campaigns to tout increased cleaning of aircraft and their filtration systems as well as recent research that said that catching the virus onboard is unlikely.
But the virus has put the industry in the tough position of needing to sell seats as it fights to survive as health officials advise against travel and gatherings to help stop the disease from spreading.
"We are providing people safety in their journey and informed science and data so they can make a decision should they want to travel," Nicholas Calio, CEO of Airlines for America, a trade group that represents most major U.S. carriers, said on a call with reporters Thursday. "We're not encouraging people to travel. Do we want to see them travel? Yes, we do, but only if it's safe to them and there are a variety of factors involved in that for each individual traveler."