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The Omicron variant is starting to weigh on travel: ‘Two steps forward and one step back’

Another Greek letter is in the headlines and the travel industry is bracing for a new COVID-19 jolt.

Several business conferences and international gatherings have been postponed due to the uncertainty generated by the latest coronavirus variant — Omicron — and airlines are preparing for a pause to the rebound of travel that the industry started to see over the last few months.

The coronavirus variant was found in an individual who returned to San Francisco from South Africa on Nov. 22; its...

United Airlines Chief Executive Scott Kirby called the spread of the variant a “short-term setback” and predicted Omicron will have a temporary impact on bookings, similar to the downturn airlines reported after the spread of the Delta variant several weeks ago.

“It’s like we are taking two steps forward and one step back,” he said Tuesday at an airline expo in Long Beach that drew 1,300 in-person attendees.

Jeffrey Goh, chief executive of Star Alliance, the world’s largest airline alliance, said it was too early to predict how Omicron will affect air travel and urged industry leaders not to panic.

A day after the conference, which required proof of vaccination for entry, organizers alerted attendees that someone at the event tested positive for COVID-19. The message didn’t specify whether the case detected was of the variant, and organizers said anyone who had close contact with the individual has been contacted.

California on Wednesday confirmed a case of Omicron — the first confirmed case in the U.S. — in an individual who returned home to San Francisco from South Africa on Nov. 22 and tested positive Monday, according to officials.

In response to the variant, the U.S. on Nov. 26 announced a temporary halt on travel from eight African countries, including South Africa, where positive test results for the new variant recently spiked. Britain, the European Union, South Korea, Japan and Israel have also instituted new travel restrictions in response to the spread of the variant.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working on a revised testing order that would require international air travelers coming in to the U.S. to test for COVID-19 one day before departure. The U.S. currently requires a negative COVID-19 test result within three days of departure.

Several international gatherings have already been postponed.

The 12th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization in Geneva, scheduled for Nov. 30 through Dec. 3, was postponed indefinitely due to travel restrictions imposed in response to the latest variant.

“Given these unfortunate developments and the uncertainty that they cause, we see no alternative but to propose to postpone the Ministerial Conference and reconvene it as soon as possible when conditions allow,” General Council Chair Ambassador Dacio Castillo told the General Council during an emergency meeting. “I trust that you will fully appreciate the seriousness of the situation.”

The World Muslim Communities Council also postponed its international conference, scheduled for Dec. 12 to 14, in the United Arab Emirates due to the spread of Omicron.

The African Development Bank, a multinational financial institution, has postponed its planned Dec. 1 to 3 investment forum in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, due to travel restrictions, the bank’s president said Monday.

“In life, man plans and proposes and God disposes,” bank President Akinwumi Adesina said in a press briefing, noting that the variant has made travel “very, very difficult.”

The new restrictions come less than a month after the U.S. eased limits on travel into the country by foreigners, a move that leaders of the badly pummeled travel industries praised. Long-haul, international travel generated a lion’s share of revenue for air carriers.

Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of the U.S. Travel Assn., a trade group for the nation’s travel industries, criticized the Biden administration’s decision to impose new bans on travel from eight African countries so soon after opening the U.S. borders.

“COVID variants are of concern, but closed borders have not prevented their presence in the United States while vaccinations have proven incredibly durable,” she said in a statement issued Sunday.

Fitch Ratings, the credit rating company, on Tuesday revised its global forecast downward, saying the arrival of new COVID-19 variants is likely to make the recovery of global air travel less certain.

“While it is too early to assess the effects of the Omicron, additional waves of infections and policy responses could lead to travel restrictions and stalled or temporary declines in traffic,” Fitch said in a statement.

Still, concern over the variant hasn’t yet affected domestic travel, according to the Adobe Digital Economy Index, which measures booking transactions at six airlines and activity on millions of online web visits.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, online bookings for domestic flights increased one percent compared to the seven previous days, with a majority of the flights scheduled for trips in the next two months, according to Adobe.

At the Airlines Passengers Experience Assn. expo in Long Beach, several airline executives spoke out against new travel restrictions in response to the variant, saying they do little to stop the spread of the virus.

“Closing borders doesn’t help,” said Tammy McKnight, chief medical officer for WestJet, the second largest airline in Canada. She urged governments to instead rely more heavily on testing travelers to keep the variant in check.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.