United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby has become the first boss of a big US carrier to warn the Omicron coronavirus variant is a threat to transatlantic travel.
“My guess is we’ll have less flying to Europe than we would have in January” because of the new variant, Kirby told the Financial Times as concerns grow that Omicron could disrupt one of the world’s most important airline routes.
The company has stopped short of cutting flights to Europe or Africa because of the variant, but Kirby fears passenger numbers will drop on some of its key routes after Omicron’s discovery in South Africa and Botswana last week.
However, he is not anticipating the variant will change the overall outlook of the airline, which has bet on a significant expansion in long-haul flights, including five new ones from the US to London from next March, which prompted the carrier’s largest order of new planes.
While it’s “too early to know for sure, my guess is that it will have a short-term impact, but the long-term forecast is not any different than it was before”, he said.
The airline will continue with new flights to Lagos, which detected its first Omicron cases this week, and the relaunch of flights to Cape Town, where the variant is spreading rapidly, because of passenger demand and the need to fly cargo to those regions.
But “we’ll wait and see”, Kirby added. The airline currently operates eight flights per week between the US east coast and Johannesburg and Accra, Ghana, in addition to its Cape Town and Lagos routes.
The emergence of the new variant, which has been found in the US states of California and Minnesota, has rattled markets and set off a global cascade of travel restrictions from southern Africa.
The World Health Organization has assessed the global risk related to Omicron as “very high”, and the EU’s health body has said the variant could account for half of the bloc’s Covid-19 infections within a few months.
Meanwhile, the chief executive of Moderna, the third big vaccine maker, has predicted a “material drop” in the efficacy of its current jabs.
But Kirby was relatively upbeat, saying society is improving its ability to navigate the emergence of variants. “We’ve always known there would be other variants. We’ve always known that it wasn’t going to be a straight line to recovery.”
He added that the airline does not like to see border closures and restrictions, describing closures as an ineffective tool to manage the pandemic, particularly since Omicron has been detected all over the world.