Omicron May Not Be The Last Of Travel’s Woes From Covid-19

Before the Omicron variant took hold, travel was roaring back. The Delta wave of the virus delayed office re-openings but vaccines were holding well against infection, especially for those that were boosted. There was a broad sense that companies would return to the office – and to business travel – in the New Year.

However the fast-spreading Omicron has meant so much infection that behaviors are changing, and travel has fallen. TSA throughput numbers show it’s gone from within 10% of pre-pandemic levels on some days to much, much lower.

Date 2022 2020 Change
1/17/2022 1,699,242 2,298,616 -26%
1/16/2022 1,379,403 2,000,260 -31%
1/15/2022 1,403,734 1,781,893 -21%
1/14/2022 1,728,383 2,347,075 -26%
1/13/2022 1,541,835 2,242,656 -31%
1/12/2022 1,231,419 1,876,782 -34%
1/11/2022 1,125,952 1,691,205 -33%
1/10/2022 1,449,550 1,992,453 -27%
1/9/2022 1,693,518 2,183,734 -22%
1/8/2022 1,449,698 1,687,974 -14%
1/7/2022 1,502,714 2,072,543 -27%
1/6/2022 1,533,544 2,034,472 -25%
1/5/2022 1,493,235 1,815,040 -18%
1/4/2022 1,666,715 1,806,480 -8%
1/3/2022 1,916,499 2,210,542 -13%
1/2/2022 2,023,309 2,422,272 -16%
1/1/2022 1,616,316 2,178,656 -26%

The view now is that we just need to get through Omicron. Indeed the industry is gearing up for a return to normal after the Omicron wave. There’s hope that more borders will re-open, more employees will return to office, and there’ll be a return to normal travel and then some given intertemporal substitution – that people refrained from travel for a long time, and will make up for it quickly.

Underlying this belief are several assumptions, which are very much the ‘base case’ but are far from assured.

  • Omicron is spreading so quickly, enough people will have had it, that there’s such a big wall of immunity going forward that the virus spreads at much lower levels going forward.
  • Plus we’re going to have variant-specific boosters that are more effective to prevent infection and symptomatic disease.
  • And we’ll have treatments to keep people out of the hospital (Paxlovid) when they do get Covid.

In other words, once we “get through” Omicron “we’re done” and return to normal life, with the risk of Covid-19 just one of the many risks we deal with in daily life. That’s the optimism, but also seems entirely reasonable to believe, but it’s also far from certain. Here’s the story around which that does not happen.

  1. Omicron infection may not actually protect against Delta infection, so it doesn’t create the wall of immunity we’re hoping for – at least for those infected with Omicron who haven’t also been vaccinated.

  2. Rather than the less virulent Omicron taking hold and becoming dominant, protection from Omicron due to so much prior infection means that Omicron recedes, and it’s the more dangerous Delta that is ultimately dominant. Or, since there’s not enough cross-immunity between the two, they effectively co-circulate and we’re faced with both going forward. Even if neither one can muster the infectiousness of past waves, the two together create enough background infection that the return to travel is slowed substantially.

  3. While it seems unlikely we’ll see more variants that spread faster than Omicron, or that evade the immune system in different ways than the variants we’ve seen (Omicron’s tricks aren’t entirely new, they just hadn’t been as fast-spreading in earlier incarnations) and those will continue to evade immunity from vaccination and from prior infection.

  4. We’re testing variant-specific boosters, but those boosters may not be as effective as hoped (we don’t know yet) or they may do well against the variant they’re targeted at but not as well across different strains as vaccines that have continued to target the ancestral Wuhan strain. Perhaps we’re able to roll out multivariant Covid vaccines (as we do with flu).

  5. Paxlovid has dangerous interactions with some drugs and isn’t indicated for everyone plus it’s only useful once someone already identifies infection to keep them out of the hospital, which requires a medical consult and testing and the sort of diligence that most people lack – so while it has the potential to allow us to ‘live with Covid’ human behavior may not adopt it well enough to do that.

For now the best that we have is boosters. A fourth dose doesn’t seem to return vaccines to the sterilizing effectiveness they had pre-Omicron but if you get boosted you’re probably highly protected against really bad things happening if you get it.

Most frustrating for me is that my daughter isn’t 5 years old and can’t get vaccinated yet. Pfizer’s trial stalled because while its vaccine was safe (it’s just a 1/10th of an adult dose) it didn’t generate enough protectiveness in 2, 3 and 4 year olds and they’re testing a third dose. But Omicron seems less severe even in kids. There’s so much spread that there’s more hospitalization, but even those cases seem to be less serious, and indeed an unvaccinated child faces less risk than a vaccinated older American.

We’re going to get to the place where we can live with Covid-19. It seems more likely than not that the Omicron wave – which will infect perhaps 40% of the country in a matter of weeks – will be the virus’ last gasp of limiting travel. But it’s not a foregone conclusion. I’m optimistic but not nearly as optimistic as Delta CEO Ed Bastian was in his airline’s recent earnings call, nor as optimistic as I expect American and United to be in theirs this week.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Once the Omicron variant is “under control”, there will be another variant to (1) keep the hysteria going and (2) enrich big Pharma. Always follow the money!!

  2. The reality is that travel won’t be “normal” until business travel returns to at least 70% of pre-pandemic rate. There is just no way that this will happen unless/until the mask mandate is lifted, and the airlines are very well aware of this. It really is that simple. I believe Gary is on the record with his belief that the administration will let it expire before the midterms in an effort to claim victory, but I am not sure. While this would certainly (politically) be the most sensible course, this administration seems to revel in following poor advice so I don’t have a lot of confidence. The fact remains that as long as the mask mandate is around, you will not have significant business travel and financial impacts will continue to hurt both the bottom line and the product.

  3. I think it’s going to take removing test requirements for international trips to get overseas travel back to even a fraction of what it was.

    Some countries are already doing this, coupled with the requirement that you be vaccinated.

    I’d love to see testing requirements ditched to get back into the US in lieu of a vaccination requirement.

    At this point additional cases being imported is less of a concern, it’s the hospital beds that matter.

    Let’s hope Omicrons decent gives an off ramp opportunity for some of these policies that made sense at the time but aren’t delivering a lot of value now.

  4. There is a lot of wishing and hoping but no one knows what will happen. I’m not sure omicron is really milder, especially not for vaccinated people. The Swiss just had some data where vaccinated people are 8x less likely to die and booster people 48X less likely to die.

    Most of the fully vaccinated people who catch it and have major issues with it are those with significant other health issues.

  5. Countries that have a low infection rates basically do 3 things, wearing masks, regular testing, and high vaccination rates.

    As a country, if we can’t get that into the collective conscience, we have no real way of getting back to normal because there will always be hot spots of infections. And we will continue to have mutations/variants that will render our vaccinations less effective because the opportunity for the coronavirus to mutate is so great due to many parts of the world who either can’t or are unwilling to be vaccinated to a higher degree.

  6. New variant. More freak-out. Sixth booster. More testing. Quarantines. Attractions closed forever. Electronic vaccine passports. Outdoor mask mandates. New lockdowns. Papers, please. COVID this. COVID that.
    It’s all coming. We won’t get anywhere near ‘normalcy’ at least until 2026. And even that won’t look like 2019, which is gone forever travelwise. Masks will be forever on planes and in airports everywhere and on public transportation too in many cities. It will be decades of longer before you go anywhere and everyone is unmasked. This freak-out has saturated the soul of some folks.
    Just flying between homes for me until 2026 – that’s it for me. Don’t want to go anywhere where it’s COVID 24/7.

  7. Please, don’t vaccinate your kid. This is a new class of ‘vaccine’ with no long term safety data. I genuinely fear that this generation of children’s health will suffer from this rush to pump everyone full of the drugs that frankly don’t work very well.

  8. Whatever the outcome, OPM flying will take a hit. It will never come back to the same levels.

    I will not miss sitting next to some low level corporate peon on my flights.

  9. Infection rates are irrelevant when the virus is mild for nearly all. Politicians probably realize it was foolish to shutdown the world over Covid but they have to justify the shutdowns and they like the powers they’ve gained over the public. Less freedom is always welcomed by the politician.

    The vaccines and booster are more dangerous than Covid given the risk of complications including myocarditis. We’ve seen a lot of healthy athletes drop at 30 and “coincidentally” they all were recently jabbed with the booster. The mRNA vaccines are only partially effective for 2 months and comprise the immune system. Of course the medical community and Pfizer/Moderna/J&J/Novavax have no reason to publish accurate information or statistics or conduct real verifiable studies because they are raking in the big bucks and getting hero status. They pretend ICUs weren’t always filled to the brim before Covid and that 500,000 elderly people didn’t die from bacterial or viral pneumonia and that obese/uncontrolled diabetic people weren’t dropping like flies before Covid.

    The reason mRNA vaccines are pushed is because Coronaviruses mutate and traditional vaccines can’t be developed. Instead of being honest about the efficacy of the vaccines and the risks they carry to the immune system, the medical/academic/and drug industry lie and governments eat it up. Nearly all who are legitimately seriously sick from Covid and hospitalized are the vaccinated. Their immune systems are shot from the vaccine. Hospitals fudge numbers and pretend unvaccinated people are hospitals for Covid because if a person has a predicting condition before Covid, they’ll say the hospitalization was caused by testing positive for a benign virus instead of the predicting condition that has flared up.

  10. No one knows what is going to happen, though I personally agree there has been a lot of hysteria about this. Unfortunately the world is in a position where we understand what causes epidemics but don’t have the tools to totally stop them. Also, I think this is a wake-up call for a lot of people that we don’t “control” nature. So a lot of unnecessary fear was whipped up. Maybe out of this mess we’ll get some much better biological knowledge for fighting future diseases, and maybe folks will look up and realize that climate change can’t be brushed off as something “out there” either. But at what a cost!

    And I really don’t see business travel coming back to anything like it was. What the plague did was accelerate by maybe a generation a trend that was already beginning. Rather than sit in a huge office building and travel twice a month one son now manages a dozen people across three states from a comfortable little house he built in his backyard. As an attorney and judge my other son has done a lot of his work by Zoom calls. And my wife attends weekly business network meetings from her home desk, or a vacation property in the Caribbean, rather than drag herself at the crack of dawn to a restaurant across town. They might meet the others at parties, bars, etc. but there’s no need to be face to face anymore. Multiply them by millions and that’s the future of a lot of business.

  11. @Kenny This is not a new class of vaccines. It has been developed over the last 20 years for other coronavirus like the MERS and the H1N1 of 2009. There are plenty of studies that prove those vaccines are safe and effective. Your fears (False Evidence Appearing Real) are based on nothing. Save a life, get vaccinated, today.

  12. @ Jackson Waterson

    “Infection rates are irrelevant when the virus is mild for nearly all.”
    – Screw the 5.5 million who died worldwide!

    The vaccines and booster are more dangerous than Covid (…)

    Myocarditis: COVID-19 is a much bigger risk to the heart than vaccination

    The safety and effectiveness of vaccines are validated by PEER-REVIEWED studies. That’s how science works.

    All of your outlandish claims aren’t backed by anything. Please, for the love of GOD, just STOP!

  13. “4 Reasons Normal Travel Is Just Around The Corner” – Gary Leff, June 19 2020

  14. @Zach_Finklestein_subhuman – and guess what? I was basically right in the predictions in that piece. In June 2020 I literally predicted vaccine approval by end of the year (and it came in December 2020!) and that it would be widely available several months after that.

    In the piece I even predicted that it would not be “a ‘one and done’ vaccine that protects you for years.”

    And indeed mostly normal travel *did* come back domestically for much of the summer and fall, and for travel to Europe.

    I’d say the record here – considering, again, this was a mere 3 months into the pandemic – is very good! But it’s also fair to criticize that in June 2020 I did not predict the Omicron variant.

    Here’s the actual post

  15. If you are vaccinated you should be allowed to live your life without restrictions. No restrictions on travel. Get back in schools and office. If you choose to not get vaccinated that is your choice but no special treatment. Schools today have the right to deny entry for kids not having required shots. Add COVID to requirement and move along. Those that chose not to get vaccinated shouldn’t be able to claim insurance if they get sick. This whole situation has gotten way out of hand. Leaders need to get tough and stop fear mongering. People will die. People always die. Those that are more at risk are more likely to get COVID. That’s the fact Jack but people die all the time from flu. I have a cousin in hospital with COVID and everyone is crying over COVID, COVID, COVID.

    My cousin has COPD, cholesterol, high blood pressure. had a stroke and a heart attack. He’s 83. If he passes the hospital will say he died from COVID. COVID was just the last nail in the coffin of 100 other nails. Understand statistics are manipulated.

  16. Commenter “Too Many” above has it right. Without the collective agreement to all get vaccinated, there will continue to be new hotspots and breeding grounds for new variants that evade vaccines. Some people’s “me me me” attitude and thinking that their uninformed beliefs (just read a few other commenters above) are the same as FACTS are handicapping us from returning to normal. Everyone please ignore anyone who thinks the vaccines are dangerous. They have been reviewed by the global medical community who is burnt out and begging us all to get vaccinated. If you want things to get back to normal, get vaccinated and prevent using up precious medical resources/ICU beds that need to go to other people who are sick or injured.

    Also, this “papers, please” paranoia is nonsense. There isn’t some global cabal or illuminati trying to control the masses. We’re just trying to get out of this pandemic and get back to normal.

  17. I had an old boss that said overtime is like a drug. Hard to wean people off of. That overtime money becomes critical to living expenses.

    I can say the same thing about COVID based work from home. People are saving a ton on gas, lunches, public transportation, child care, dry cleaning and opportunity cost with less travel time.

    People don’t want to come back to office after 2 years because financially they are USED to pocketing the savings. Why do you think people are fighting tooth and nail to stay home? Funny I went to a Pitbull concert in Charlotte and 15-20k people were there. The same people that bitch and moan about masks and social distance and complain about coming back to office but can dance and drink with 20K of their closest friends

  18. I doubt it. The libtards will find something else to cry about. Just look at those cowards in Hawaii.

  19. The most stunning sentence in this whole fear-porn article is
    “Most frustrating for me is that my daughter isn’t 5 years old and can’t get vaccinated yet.”

    Seriously, Gary?

    Unless your daughter has some serious condition, why in the world would you be so preoccupied w/ a vaccine for a disease that has an infinitesimally small risk to young children?

    And the real risk to travel is not covid any more. It is fuel prices. Crude is over $85 and growing due to yet another explosion in oil infrastructure in the Middle East – this time a pipeline in Iraq.

    $100 plus oil will put airlines that survived covid into bankruptcy and send fares much higher.

  20. Someone answer this for me.

    If the vaccinated can still get Covid and spread it, and the unvaccinated can still get Covid and spread it—— then why are we still doing all of this?

    Why are we wearing masks? We’ve worn them for almost 2 years and yet everyone is still getting Covid, surprise surprise. Even the CDC said they don’t work.

    Why do we see high risk people (elderly) like Fauci, Pelosi and other R and D politicians not wearing a mask? It’s because they know it doesn’t work either. It’s all about control.

    So why are we still doing all of this? Who cares if someone is unvaxxed– if they get sick and die– it’s on them. If someone smokes and gets lung cancer– it’s on them. If someone eats sugar all day and dies from diabetes– it’s on them.

    Who gives a flying bleep who has the vaccine or who doesn’t? If you want it, get it and move on with your life. If you don’t want it–don’t get it and keep moving on with your life.

    Life will never be normal again until some common sense re-appears, which will be never.

  21. @Gary, wasn’t it your blog that posted 6 weeks ago that Covid was over?? You are an expert in miles and points I appreciate that. How about posting some predictions about point redemptions, their value and availability.

    With domestic travel being the best option how can we best use our travel domestically this year?? What flights can you use points best to fly up front. What hotel deals can you get?

  22. @Met Fans you really don’t understand how death works.

    If your cousin with “COPD, cholesterol, high blood pressure. had a stroke and a heart attack. He’s 83.” If he gets hit by a car and passes the hospital will say he died from car accident. The accident was just the last nail in the coffin of 100 other nails.

    Because, just like if had died of COVID, without that event he would otherwise be alive, 100 nails and all.

    You really don’t understand how you are being manipulated by misinformation. There is nothing wrong with our statistics are collected, only on how science is being manipulated for political reasons.

  23. I am at one of the biggest trade shows of the year in Las Vegas. Although a lot of major companies paid for floor space they have left it empty and mad a “lounge” — put in few chairs.ear and they all did gt
    For me, as a recently retired Pubco CEO and then Board Chairman, what I see is companies learning they don’t have to do these shows. (It was cancelled last year, and they all did great anyway).
    I have a sneaky feeling companies have also learned employees don’t *have* to travel any more, especially internationally.
    And, as long as idiot companies like American persist in keeping their business class (Flagship) lounges closed and provide a one-tray, coach-like service for meals in transcon first and business class, who *wants* to travel?
    No pressure from companies to travel, no pressure from employees to go since the experience sucks = no air travel.
    I am short US airlines generally.

  24. If you have respected your own body over the years, if you’ve avoided eating/drinking CRAP and have exercised regularly, you have nothing to fear from Covid. The stats are OVERWHELMING… Covid is survivable, and for most it is almost non-impactful.

    If, however, you have no discipline and eat unhealthy and drink unhealthy and don’t exercise, then you should worry. But don’t spread your fear to people who’ve been attempting to live right. You reap what you sow.

    Even for the people who completely disrespect their bodies, Covid is almost 100% survivable. So, make your own choices. But I guarantee you, if you treat your body like crap, you will die prematurely, be it from Covid or something else. It’s 100% guaranteed that you’ll die prematurely.

    Covid is 99.9% survivable. Do some math and choose your risk.
    Good luck. But… you can make your own luck.
    And quit injecting your kids with worthless Rna. Parents who chose that should be charged with child abuse.

    And, every CDC employee should be fired for corruption. And prohibited from serving on ANY private board after govt retirement.

  25. All the companies that I am involved with, banned all travel. Everyone is using MS Teams and Zoom, no need to spend thousands of dollars on travel. The work can be done without traveling. If 25-35% of “Before Times” business travel comes back that will probably be the best that airlines can expect.

  26. Fully vaxxed and boosted here. I am part of the large TX Cares antibody study. Two weeks ago I topped out on the test as having the highest numbers we’ve all seen the test reports (<2500–numbers are much higher in reality, but the test tops out there). That meant I was still showing VERY high immunity. About a week ago I got Covid, despite all that, so I suppose all the rumors are true! I don't know how, honestly. Live alone, have not socialized, or even traveled for once in a while. My work is currently virtual, and I definitely did not spend more than 15 minutes with anyone in a quick run to AM/PM for a cup of coffee. But viruses happen, you know. I don't feel so hot, but was grateful for 5 rather than the early on 14 days of quarantine. All that said, I think a lot of this is spot on–and you guys can let up on Gary not being a scientist or whatever–he is citing scientific sources and using an educated brain to explain what is already on the news. This is my first "natural" encounter with Covid–confirmed by the TX antibody study (ZERO natural immunity until this past week). I am one of a large, large number of my friends, acquaintances and coworkers who are triple vaxxed and have it or have it (but we have not physically been together). By the way, throughout the pandemic, I have been all over N. America, S. America (pre-vaccine), Europe, and the Middle East. And I got it here at home, in small town "Podunk" when I can't even pinpoint how. Because that's the way viruses happen, too.

    And before I left the doctor, I asked for a travel letter, of course–because most of the posters are right. The idea of getting to travel with a vaccine card and that letter and no money spent on testing and running around Rio or London to a test site before coming home? PRICELESS. I consider it a reward for this cough that is making my ribs hurt. Currently planning a getaway within the next 90 days 🙂

  27. Kudos to Gary for daring to venture into this, sadly, hyper politicised space. Omicron-related operational complexity and demand blips aside, US airline CEO optimism is probably linked to how the majority of operations are domestic vs. international/intercontinental.

    At a macro level and way beyond the airline industry, it is frightening how a +/- 1% mortality rate inflicting virus breeds such vast but narrow movements against science, common sense and civic duty. Which mortality rate is needed for all (or almost all) to sit up and pay attention?

  28. People thought children’s exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus was not all that a big deal and was akin to presenting an “infinitesimally small risk to young children”. Now it seems more and more clear that there is a much higher risk of such infected children ending up with MS because of being hit with that very widespread virus as children or young adults.

    If Timm Dunn wants to “let it rip” with small kids when it comes to viral infections, perhaps he’s fine with putting up his money with higher taxes for the big bills that come from debilitating diseases and disorders that appear later in life as a result of infections hitting children?

  29. Lindy and her/his/their “cancel culture” fantasies.

    And Lindy’s still out there defending her/his/their insurrectionist, repeatedly oath-violating Lord Trump.

  30. Like death and taxes, it appears we’ll always have the unvaccinated with us creating havoc for the health care system. For those of us who are vaccinated the risks of severe results from Covid are in the “most dangerous part of the trip is the drive to the airport” category. Some media outlets allow publication of absolute falsehoods which muddy the understanding of those who don’t understand science and statistics.

    The vaccinated need to realize it is safe to live life and travel, perhaps taking a few extra precautions if they are the very elderly or those with underlying illness, or are near them.The unvaccinated will continue to pack the ICUs and morgues for a while, but that is their choice. Perhaps we’ll need to build a new network of Covid hospitals to house them so that services in regular hospitals don’t need to be so taxed and rationed.

  31. Covid is not and never has been shown to be anywhere remotely in the same league as Epstein Barr.

    It is a souped up corona virus that significantly impacts the elderly – which have weakened immunity and reduced cardiovascular function. Even the CDC acknowledges that the vast majority of covid deaths under 60 involve one and statistically far more comorbidies.

    There has been no demonstrated risk to the majority of young people and, healthy, non-obese children.

    Given that obesity in the US is at frighteningly high levels, there are indeed alot of people who do have reason to be concerned – but the real issue is to deal w/ obesity and poor generalized health and quit pushing fear on and trying to divide people that have taken care of their bodies and have managed to successfully overcome covid without a vaccine from those that are have comorbidities that will negatively impact their lives long after covid has come and gone.

    Vaccines work for many disease including for children. Corona viruses were always going to be difficult to conquer w/ vaccines and that is exactly what has been shown to be the case.

    Instead of recognizing that reality, some continue to double down on belittling others while failing to deal w/ the real root causes of poor health in the US.


    vax and boosted.

  32. Things will not return to normal. It’s not part of the plan. If it was we’d already be well on our way. Nothing about the response to this makes any sense from a public health point of view. From a political point of view it has divided people against each other, and that always works to the benefit of some of the political powers. I have no idea what the actual plan is, but I’m pretty sure it is not to the benefit of most of us. Regardless of vaxed or not, regardless of personal political posture. We’re all in this together and it’s time to realize that.

  33. What Chris said. Until regime uncertainty fades, there will be some travel hesitation.

    I understood Gary’s frustration with the child’s vaccine to be not so much fear of illness but uncertainty around the illness. Harder to travel, arbitrary and uncertain quarantine restrictions, even day-to-day – will she have to stay home from school for an extended period rather than just going back in once she feels better like we did with the flu?

  34. @FamTaYUL

    You are either an utter and complete FOOL *or* you’re a shill for one or more of the pharmaceutical companies…. if it is the latter I hope you burn in Hell, you evil bastard!

    The evidence is out there for those of us who want to know the ACTUAL truth, and not greed-enhanced propaganda.

    Very soon the people will FINALLY wake up and hopefully hunt criminals like you down and string you up from the nearest stout oak!

  35. I love all the people talking about COVID hysteria who very clearly read the first half of the article and then skipped all of the caveats that have just as good of a chance of occurring

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