Airlines for America, a group representing the nation's largest carriers, canceled its annual holiday forecast this year, but said it expected more people to fly around Thanksgiving than in the weeks before or after. American Airlines said it expected to operate about 15 percent more flights around the holiday than in the rest of the month. And United expects Thanksgiving week to be the busiest one since the pandemic began, crediting measures to guard against the virus's spread that it says have put passengers at ease.
"They see that mask compliance is really good; they've seen how clean the planes are; they've maybe even seen the electrostatic sprayers in action; they've seen us board the plane back to front, they've seen social distancing on the jet bridge -- all of that has contributed to greater confidence in air travel," said Josh Earnest, United's chief communications officer.
Thanksgiving may improve the airline industry's fortunes, but prospects for passenger demand in the weeks ahead are dimming. Southwest Airlines said last week that booking momentum seemed to be slowing for the rest of the year. American Airlines, which has also seen demand dip because of the virus, has slashed December flights between the United States and Europe, leaving just two daily flights out of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, to London and Frankfurt.
To some extent, the unevenness of the travel recovery comes as little surprise, said Helane Becker, managing director and senior airline analyst at Cowen.
"We always knew that it would be choppy, but that said, we think that people want to travel and they're looking for ways to get out," Ms. Becker said during a Thursday panel at the Skift Aviation Forum.
In Europe, the mood is far bleaker, with hopes of a revival over the holiday season largely dashed by the resurgence of infections and the lockdown measures reintroduced this month to curb the spread of the virus.
Ski resorts in the United States remain hopeful for winter travel, but those in France, Austria and Italy are closed until at least the end of November. Thousands of Christmas markets -- which attract millions of visitors each year with mulled wine, roasted chestnuts and handmade holiday gifts -- have been canceled, and Santa Claus displays have been taken online.
"Looking at the landscape across Europe now, we do not have high expectations for the winter season," said Eric Dresin, secretary general of the European Travel Agents' and Tour Operators' Association. "We are in a situation where we can't plan anything, and naturally that is crippling for the industry."
The European Union uses a traffic light system for determining travel restrictions, labeling countries and individual regions green, amber or red, based on the rate of new infections, test rates and incidence per 100,000 inhabitants in the previous 14 days. Most member states require travelers arriving from high-risk red areas to take a coronavirus test or quarantine themselves upon arrival. At the end of last week, all European countries were labeled red, except Norway and Finland.
Travel and airline associations across Europe are calling for coordinated testing and contact tracing protocols to replace blanket quarantine measures, arguing that they cause uncertainty and confusion among travelers and have a limited effect on the spread of the virus.