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Airlines were beginning to recover from the pandemic, then Omicron showed up

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The discovery of the omicron variant of the coronavirus in the U.S. is raising questions about whether it'll be safe to travel for the upcoming holidays, with Christmas just three weeks away.

As NPR's David Schaper reports, that's brought worries to the airline industry, which was just starting to turn the corner toward recovery.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Did you travel for Thanksgiving? If so, you know you were not alone. Airlines had their busiest week since the pandemic began. And the industry had been preparing for a very busy December, too, with airlines ramping up hiring and some offering employees incentives to work extra shifts to accommodate an increase in passengers. But now with the emergence of the omicron variant, it's here we go again, as many would-be holiday travelers are rethinking their plans.

PAM VAN DYCK: Our biggest concern, of course, with what's happening now with the new variant - and it's just getting a little risky.

SCHAPER: Pam Van Dyck and her husband Barry had planned to take their two kids and their families to Mexico to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary last year. But the pandemic forced them to postpone to this December. And now she's dreading the thought of postponing again.

VAN DYCK: We're ready. We're all ready, (laughter) you know? Everybody's ready for a real vacation away from home - but not putting everybody at risk.

SCHAPER: Dr. Robert Murphy, professor of infectious diseases at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine says, while the omicron variant is concerning, there's not a lot known about it yet. He says those without underlying health conditions don't need to cancel travel plans yet. But they should be ready to hit the pause button.

ROBERT MURPHY: We'll know a lot more in the next two weeks. And if this comes out like we think it's going to come - in other words, it's just more contagious, and it's not a worse disease, and if you're vaccinated and boosted - that if you do get infected, you don't get too sick - I think travel could be pretty safe very soon.

SCHAPER: But dozens of countries are imposing new travel restrictions to try to slow the spread of the omicron variant - the U.S. among them - with the Biden administration now requiring proof of a negative COVID test for all travelers coming into the U.S. within a day of their departure. It's also extending the mask-wearing mandate in airports and on board planes into March. Such restrictions could have a chilling effect on air travel.

ROBERT W MANN: Well, you know, it's one more headache you didn't need, hopefully, and you hope to avoid.

SCHAPER: Robert W. Mann is a former airline executive who now works as a consultant for an industry reeling for nearly two years now, even though it just had its best week since the pandemic began.

MANN: It's a continuation of the theme we've seen since the beginning, which was, you know, two steps forward, one step back - or sometimes two steps back. But, you know, we'll make it through this. We understand how to deal with it a lot better than we did initially.

SCHAPER: While bookings for future travel are starting to slow, Mann says holiday travelers tend to book far ahead of time. And most haven't been canceling travel plans just yet. But he says the omicron variant does cast a pall of uncertainty for airline executives planning for next year.

MANN: And their decision has to be, you know, how much capacity am I going to risk scheduling in 2022 for the spring and summer, mostly? - because that's when everyone hoped we would be out of the soup and into the black again. But I think there's still - some concern is that this may once again delay that recovery process.

SCHAPER: Citing the World Health Organization's advice that blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread of COVID, airline and travel executives are urging governments globally not to institute what some call panic-driven travel restrictions, which would hurt the industry.

David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF WE CAME FROM THE NORTH'S "BORDER MONUMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.