United Airlines Bets on Return of Trans-Atlantic Travel

Airlines including United are betting that people will be anxious to travel abroad next year after countries closed their borders during the coronavirus pandemic and put in place a complex patchwork of rules and restrictions that are only just starting to ease.

Airlines have had their plans upended before as conditions have changed throughout the pandemic, and carriers have had to delay new routes or pull back on flying when new surges in cases or new travel restrictions derailed long term plans. But airline executives have said strong bookings during the abbreviated summer travel season this year and ahead of the winter holidays point to resilient demand.

United Chief Executive

Scott Kirby

has said in recent months that the summer of 2022 could be the busiest ever for trans-Atlantic travel, with loosening border restrictions unleashing a surge of international travel like the fast rebound in domestic travel last summer.

In hopes of capturing that demand, the airline said it plans to launch flights in May and June to five new destinations: Amman, Jordan; Bergen, Norway; the Azores, Mallorca and the Canary Islands.

These are places that are hard to get to,” said

Patrick Quayle,

senior vice president of international network and alliances at United.

The pandemic reshaped airline route maps as international air travel slowed to a crawl in the past year and a half, with global networks shrinking dramatically.

The new flights United plans to launch next spring indicates both how the world is starting to reopen and how travel has evolved. United is expanding its offerings to cater to growing demand for leisure, Mr. Quayle said.

United plans to expand service next spring to large European cities, including Berlin and Rome from some of its major U.S. hubs. It also plans to launch new flights that were delayed by the pandemic, including daily flights from San Francisco to Bangalore, and several others.

United experimented with new international flying during the pandemic, adding new flights to popular tourist destinations including Reykjavik, Iceland, Athens, Greece, and Dubrovnik, Croatia––routes that Mr. Quayle said were successful as customers sought out new destinations that were open to American tourists. It also grew service to Africa and India, regions where it hadn’t had much of a presence, in a bid to lure customers visiting friends and relatives.

European countries began allowing American tourists to visit again over the summer, but the European Union recommended halting nonessential travel from the U.S. at the end of August amid a rise in Covid-19 cases stateside and growing frustration that the U.S. hadn’t dropped its restrictions on EU travelers. In practice, though, most countries continued to allow Americans to visit, although several require vaccination or testing.

Starting next month, the Biden administration is expected to ease the travel bans that had barred most travelers from Europe, the U.K. and other countries from coming to the U.S. Instead, it will require foreign nationals seeking to fly to the U.S. to show proof of vaccination.

Other airlines on both sides of the Atlantic are also reviving dormant routes and anticipating a surge of demand.

Delta Air Lines Inc.

Chief Executive

Ed Bastian

said Wednesday that he expects European travel next spring and summer will look much like the busy summer airlines had for U.S. domestic travel.

Write to Alison Sider at [email protected]

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