(Reuters) – Intercontinental Hotels Group on Friday signalled a sharp recovery in the hospitality sector as people gradually resume leisure and business travel after countries eased pandemic-related restrictions.
Holiday Inn owner’s RevPAR, or revenue per available room, was up 61% for the three months ended March 31, as the group saw improved trading in its Americas and EMEAA regions.
(Reporting by Shanima A in Bengaluru; Editing by Sherry Jacob-Phillips)
The number of Americans hospitalized with Covid-19 has surpassed last winter’s peak, underscoring the severity of the threat the virus continues to pose as the extremely contagious Omicron variant tears through the United States.
As of Sunday, 142,388 patients with the virus were hospitalized nationwide, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, surpassing the peak of 142,315 reported on Jan. 14 of last year. The seven-day average of daily hospitalizations was 132,086, an increase of 83 percent from two weeks ago.
The Omicron wave has overwhelmed hospitals and depleted staff who were already worn out by the Delta variant. It has been driven in large part by people younger than 60. Among people older than 60, daily admissions are still lower than last winter.
The hospitalization totals also include people who test positive for the virus incidentally after being admitted for conditions unrelated to Covid-19; there is no national data showing how many people are in that category.
As cases soared over the past few weeks to an average of over 737,000 per day, far higher than last winter’s peak, public health officials have argued that caseloads were of limited significance because Omicron is less virulent than Delta and other variants, and vaccines, and especially boosters, offered protection against severe illness.
Current hospitalizations are one of the most reliable measures of the severity of the pandemic over time, because they are not influenced by testing availability or by spikes in minor cases.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s top infectious diseases expert, told ABC News last week that it was “much more relevant to focus on the hospitalizations,” which lag cases.
About a quarter of U.S. hospitals are experiencing critical staffing shortages, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Some states, like Oregon, have deployed the National Guard to help. Others, like Illinois and Massachusetts, are delaying elective surgeries — meaning surgeries that are scheduled, as opposed to an emergency, a category that can include procedures like a mastectomy for a cancer patient. In some cases, employees with asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic coronavirus infections have been working, potentially putting patients at risk.
After nearly two years, “even the most dedicated individuals are going to be tired and worn out, if not burned out and dealing with mental health issues as a consequence,” said Dr. Mahshid Abir, an emergency physician at the University of Michigan and a researcher at the RAND Corporation.
Doctors, nurses and other medical personnel are also falling ill themselves, and while the vast majority are vaccinated and haven’t needed hospitalization, their illness still keeps them out of work, reducing staffing just when it is needed most.
“The demand is going up and the supply is going down, and that basically doesn’t paint a good picture for people and communities, not just for Covid but for everything else,” Dr. Abir said, alluding to the fact that hospitals overwhelmed by coronavirus patients are ill equipped to handle other emergencies, from heart attacks to appendicitis to traumatic injuries.
Data in some of the first cities hit by Omicron also show deaths spiking sharply — not as fast as case rates, but fast enough to warn of more devastation to come.
Adeel Hassan and Albert Sun contributed reporting.
It’s been a rough two years for the cruise industry, where fortunes have taken another downturn with the appearance of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, and in the wake of a recent recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid leisure travel on the high seas.
With new infections showing no sign of relenting anytime soon, the CDC has said cruises should be avoided, regardless of vaccination status. The CDC increased the travel warning for ships to level 4 — the highest risk level — amid a surge of coronavirus outbreaks on seafaring vessels.
All of which should spell bad news for various cruise lines like Carnival (CCL), Disney (DIS), Norwegian (NCLH) and Royal Caribbean (RCL), which have ships on the CDC’s Cruise Ship Color Status. In a statement last week, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) criticized the CDC’s move as “particularly perplexing,” given that the total number of cases on ships were a “slim minority of the total population onboard.”
Yet the stocks of all of those companies ended sharply higher on Friday, underscoring how the industry is taking the long view on Omicron. The mutation is highly transmissible but less debilitating, especially among the vaccinated. And despite the CDC’s worrying call, ships have kept sailing from ports around the country.
“The science does not support the CDC. You’re actually safer on a cruise ship,” Stewart Chiron, a cruise expert, told Yahoo Finance on Monday.
“Everybody’s being vaccinated, everyone’s tested, frequently. We’re seeing an increase, which is 90% of these recent cases are crew, not passengers,” Chiron added.
He argued that cruises are doing what they can to mitigate risk, insisting it’s “more safe on a cruise ship than it is to be at home.”
It’s unclear how long the CDC’s travel advisory will be in place, but the agency has issued a Conditional Sailing Order (CSO) that’s been extended until January 15.
Omicron explosion on ships
However, the data paint a different picture. In figures provided to Yahoo Finance, the CDC found that between November 30 and December 14, only 162 COVID-19 cases were reported to the agency by cruise ships operating in U.S waters.
Yet between December 15-29, over 5,000 COVID-19 cases were reported from cruise ships — a whopping 31 times the number of cases from the comparable two week period.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people are not honest about their health situation,” Chiron explained. “And some people think that, ‘well, I’m symptomatic that I’ll be able to fake my way through it,’ but they don’t realize that your symptoms are only going to get worse.”
Cruise lines constantly test crew three to four times a week, and are expected to bump up testing as they move forward, he said.
“We also have to take into consideration that some of these ships with the 5,000 number [cases] aren’t even yet in service, and as [they] continue to add more ships, there’s a lot of these ships doing short cruises, three, four, and five night sailings, you’re gonna have higher increase,” Chiron said.
“The CDC’s color code really is meaningless because one crew, seven passengers, means you go from green to yellow, so it really doesn’t tell anything,” he added.
Last week, Royal Caribbean reported an increase in people testing positive, but without a corresponding increase illnesses — a sign of how the Omicron wave has been less grave in terms of medical outcomes.
People are still calling the travel agent. They’re still booking their cruises through the travel agent.Stewart Chiron, travel expert
Since the return of cruise ships in June of 2021, Royal Caribbean has ferried over a million guests with over 1,700 people testing positive — a positivity rate of 0.02%, according to company. The majority of those cases were mild symptoms, with 41 people being hospitalized.
In addition, none of the Omicron cases were severe or needed to be taken to hospital, signaling how guests were vaccinated and had negative tests before boarding the ship.
And since resuming operations in September 2020, Carnival, the largest cruise company, has carried 1.2 million guests onboard its ships. As of late November, 61% of the company’s capacity was operating with guests on board; the company expects the full fleet to back in operation in the Spring of 2022.
‘Not gonna be an issue’
As the travel industry slowly starts to recover from the pandemic woes, analysts believe the CDC’s stricter guidance would not impact business or travel bookings, especially for warm weather months when the virus tends to wane.
“People are still calling the travel agent. They’re still booking their cruises through the travel agent,” Chiron said. “Bookings for 2022 and 2023 are ahead of where they were in 2019 at record levels and at higher pricing.”
And Wall Street is optimistic that the industry will continue to sail on as it tries to overcome the pandemic’s latest hurdle.
“The view is this is just not gonna be an issue in six months when people go on their summer vacation,” Chris Woronka, a senior analyst at Deutsche Bank who covers the cruise lines and other travel sectors, told Yahoo Finance in an interview.
The impact from Omicron and the CDC’s latest advisory is likely to be less of a factor as the year rolls on — and certainly not in 2023, according to Deutsche’s research.
“The market is just taking a much bigger, longer term view of this and saying that guidance, maybe won’t be out there forever and customers are making their own decision[s],” Woronka said.
Last week, Royal Caribbean reported a decline in bookings and increased cancellations for near-term sailings, but said it was less than they experienced during the summer’s Delta variant surge. The first half of 2022 bookings remains below historical levels, but the second half of 2022 continues to be booked with historical ranges at higher prices.
“People couldn’t go on a cruise for basically 15 months and again, they’re not all back yet, so there’s still that pent up demand,” Woronka said, even as he said investors are worried about the appearance of a new variant.
The course of the pandemic has “been unpredictable and nobody’s gotten it exactly right,” Woronka said.
Meanwhile, Carnival’s short interest has increased 21% since its last report, a sign that some investors are betting on the stock to fall. Woronka has a “Hold” rating on Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian. Despite Friday’s rally, all of those have sold off more than 10% since early November.
“We don’t see sufficient enough upside right now,” Woronka said. “There is still uncertainty with the virus out there.”
Dani Romero is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @daniromerotv
LONDON (AP) — Officials have warned revellers in Scotland and Wales to think twice before travelling to England to ring in the new year, highlighting how the four parts of the U.K. were again taking starkly different approaches to coronavirus restrictions amid record-high infections and soaring hospitalizations.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has resisted tightening restrictions in England despite the rapid spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant, instead focusing on frequent self-testing and an expanded vaccine booster program to control the spread of infections.
Meanwhile Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which set their own public health rules, imposed new restrictions this week that closed all nightclubs and limited social gatherings. Bars and pubs have had to return to table service only. In Edinburgh, which traditionally hosts one of Europe’s largest New Year’s Eve parties, people have been urged to stay at home.
While no formal travel ban is in place to stop Scottish party-goers from making their way to England on Friday, Scotland’s deputy leader John Swinney said travelling would be the “wrong course of action.”
Opinions have been divided on whether Johnson’s Conservative government was taking a risky gamble in not enforcing tougher coronavirus measures in England as the omicron variant drove infections to record high numbers.
Figures released Thursday showed the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the U.K. jumped to 11,898, up 44% from a week earlier. Confirmed new daily cases hit a record of 189,213 on Thursday, and the government reported 332 deaths, the highest figure since March.
While the data is patchy due to delays in reporting over the holidays, the figures suggest there have not been large numbers of seriously ill patients.
“Although the numbers are going up and going up increasingly rapidly, the absence of large numbers of seriously ill older people is providing significant reassurance,” Chris Hopson, the head of NHS Providers, told The Times.
But immunologist and government scientific adviser Peter Openshaw said while U.K. hospitals haven’t yet reached the “threshold” of being overwhelmed, “it looks like that will be reached quite quickly.”
Some believe Johnson’s strategy is risky and that large crowds gathering indoors for New Year’s Eve will likely lead to a further rise in infections.
“It is quite risky, given the fact we’re now approaching 200,000 cases per day –- there is a high rate of infection in the community,” Dr. Azeem Majeed, head of primary care and public health at Imperial College London, told Times Radio.
Johnson has urged people to take a rapid coronavirus test before going out and meeting with others on Friday, or to celebrate outdoors if possible. While firework displays have been cancelled in London for the second year in a row, many parties were going ahead and many revellers were still expected to turn out in the capital later in the day.
New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy is catching heat for taking an eight-day Christmas vacation in Costa Rica despite the State Department warning travelers to “reconsider” visiting there due to COVID-19 and as the case count surges in his own state.
Murphy, vice chair of the National Governors Association, called in from Costa Rica to President Biden’s COVID-19 response meeting with the nation’s governors on Monday, where he received a “thank you” from the president before the meeting was closed to the public.
Murphy and his wife left the country on Dec. 22 and are due back this Thursday, while Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver serves as acting governor.
Phil Murphy, governor of New Jersey, exits after speaking during an election night event in Asbury Park, New Jersey, U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. (Getty)
Murphy was asked last week about whether the trip was appropriate, given that his state is seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases with a seven-day-average case count of 14,405.
“We’re going to spend some time together as a family,” the governor responded, NJ.com reported. “Please God, we need that.”
Murphy has come under fire for his actions several times over the course of the pandemic. In August, he was blasted by Republicans, including by his predecessor, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for setting the “wrong message” after jetting off to Italy for a 10-day vacation as the delta variant of the coronavirus surged in the state.
When the coronavirus first started to rage across the country in March 2020, Murphy defended keeping armed guards for his personal protection while closing “non-essential” gun shops.
“It is what it is,” he said at the time.
A few months later, Murphy defended himself for attending a George Floyd protest, saying he “can’t imagine what it would look like if we told people, ‘You have to ignore systemic racism, just stay inside.'” He lifted his stay-at-home orders just two days later.
Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-N.J., is seen in the Capitol during procedural votes related to the articles of impeachment on Dec. 18, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
“Governor Murphy defying orders, even his own, is nothing new,” the congressman said. “He has left the state of New Jersey on personal trips multiple times during the pandemic, yet continuously imposes mask mandates, vaccine mandates, and virtual school is now back on the table.”
“If Governor Murphy can travel out of the country when the State Department urges the American people to stay put, Americans should be afforded the same discretion regarding their personal health choices just like our leaders,” he continued. “It is fitting that President Biden escapes his responsibilities by traveling to a Delaware beach house after saying responses to COVID-19 should be left to the states, and then Governor Murphy runs off to a Costa Rican beach.”
Gov. Phil Murphy casts his vote at the Arts and Cultural Center in Long Branch, New Jersey on Oct. 23, 2021. (John Jones /NJ Advance Media via AP)
For the first time this holiday travel season, the number of passengers screened by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on Dec. 22 exceeded the number of passengers who traveled on that date two years ago
Unfortunately, the airlines are unable to handle this surge in passengers.
In the early days of the pandemic, airlines scrambled to get senior employees to take early retirement as a way to immediately reduce their payroll expenses. The two-part plan was to trim the excess of the most expensive employees and later replace them with new hires at a greatly reduced cost once the demand for travel returned.
The first part of the plan worked better than expected, with nearly 60,000 employees leaving the airline industry. That provided needed relief to airlines that were, at the time, battling a 96 percent drop in traffic.
The cost reductions were not enough. The industry lobbied Washington for assistance, resulting in three rounds of bailout money coming their way totaling more than $54 billion.
The second part of the plan, where new hires would help fill the ranks when demand for travel returned, never materialized. For the first time in the history of commercial aviation, the interest in working for airlines was not there. Airlines were experiencing the same hiring problems that were hobbling so many companies across the country.
With a reduced number of employees, the airlines limped into the holiday travel season. As the number of passengers increased, so did the operational challenges. As the omicron variant spread, it impacted many airline employees, who were then subjected to a 10-day period of quarantine. At present, airlines are pushing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the quarantine period to be reduced to five days, citing the fact their employees are vaccinated and are desperately needed to keep the holiday travel season flowing.
The negative impact became clear on Christmas Eve as United and Delta Airlines were forced to cancel hundreds of flights because of their employee shortage. The absence of many available seats on later flights will make the task of accommodating the more than 50,000 affected passengers even more of a challenge. It is also quite possible that as the last week of holiday travel proceeds, we will see a growing number of flight delays and cancellations, adding to passenger headaches.
Normally this kind of disruption can be attributed to weather or a computer issue, both of which can arise at any moment. If we see any computer problems or bad weather over the next 10 days, the airline network could see thousands of cancelled flights and tens of thousands of stranded travelers.
For those who are flying and encounter a problem with a flight, use the social media tools at your disposal to contact the airlines. Many times, something as simple as a Facebook private message to an airline can provide quick travel options for your consideration.
The key for effective social media interaction with an airline is to first provide your six-digit confirmation number and then briefly describe the problem at hand. This is not the time to document complaints about your last six flights. Keep it short and make it easy to read.
Consider using Flight Aware as a quick reference during your travels. This free site allows us to track our flight as well as the incoming aircraft that makes up our departure, allowing us to review the very latest information.
Once we pass Jan. 3, 2022, airlines will have a chance to regroup, as the month of January is historically a slower travel month. The traffic patterns tend to pick up as we near March, so hopefully airlines will have ample time to prepare for the next rush of passengers, because we can clearly see they were not prepared this time.
Jay Ratliff spent over 20 years in management with Northwest/Republic Airlines, including as aviation general manager. He is an IHeart aviation analyst.
The best way to save money is to drive your own car to your destination, Staab said.
To find the cheapest fuel prices during your road trip, he suggests downloading the GasBuddy app.
2. Don’t wait until the last minute
Staab anticipates the cost of flying will continue to rise until the Fourth of July, so if you want to book a summer trip, get on it right away, he advised.
If you have more flexibility and are comfortable waiting, there’s a chance prices could start going down after Independence Day.
But if you book the flight too close to the actual trip date, you could wind up paying more. The best time to buy your airline tickets is in what Scott Keyes, founder of travel deal websites and newsletter Scott’s Cheap Flights, calls the “Goldilocks window” — not too early and not too late.
For domestic trips, the cheap flights are most likely to pop up one to three months in advance of your travel date. If you are traveling internationally, they are mostly likely to occur two to eight months in advance, he said. You can monitor fares by setting up price alerts.
3. Be flexible
Typically people choose a destination, when the trip will occur and then look up airfares.
Instead, flip that on its head, Keyes said. Look up cheap flights out of your home airport and choose the destination that most interests you. Then, see what dates work with your schedule.
“By setting price as the top priority rather than the last priority, that’s how you get cheap flights,” Keyes said.
The Great Arch in Zion National Park, Utah.
DANIEL SLIM | AFP | Getty Images
You may also find cheaper airfare at another nearby airport. It may mean a farther drive, but it doesn’t necessarily result in a longer travel time. For instance, that longer drive may result in a flight that doesn’t have as many stops along the way.
If you are traveling to a far-flung destination, you can also find less expensive airfares to a major city and then take a local budget airline, ferry or train to your final destination.
4. Remember the days
It’s no longer true that there is a best day of the week to book a flight, since new prices are constantly coming online, Keyes said.
However, there tend to be cheaper days to actually fly: Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday.
5. Think outside the box
Beaches and national parks are extremely popular in the summer. In fact, if you want to visit a national park, Staab advises making a reservation first. In many parks, reservations are mandatory.
To save money, consider a place that is not your normal destination, like the mountains instead of the beach.
“If it is something everyone wants to do, it is going to be expensive,” Staab said.
6. Don’t forget about Covid testing
An airport hostess waits to assist passengers going through a rapid Covid-19 testing area at Malpensa Airport in Milan, Italy, on April 2, 2021.
PIERO CRUCIATTI | AFP | Getty Images
You may need a coronavirus test before traveling, so research your destination to make sure you know what is required.
Some drugstore chains offer PCR testing at no additional cost if you use insurance, or if you fall under a federal program. You can also get rapid and PCR tests at some airports for a fee.
While you often have to pay for the test ahead of travel, many hotels and destinations are offering free testing, Staab noted. Some destinations will even pay you for a negative Covid test. For instance, Portugal’s Azores Islands offer a 35 euro voucher to offset the cost of the mandatory Covid test, he pointed out.
Several European cities have already canceled firework displays ringing in 2022 and some countries are reimposing restrictions, while Chinese families face the prospect of their third Lunar New Year spent apart.
The Lunar New Year — which begins on February 1, 2022 — is China’s biggest holiday, with millions of people traditionally crisscrossing the country to join loved ones for the festivities.
But those plans were upturned for many after China’s National Health Commission (NHC) on Saturday announced travel restrictions, doubling down on its “zero-Covid” strategy ahead of the Beijing Olympics happening the same month.
It urged residents in any city with confirmed Covid-19 cases against traveling during the upcoming New Year and Spring Festival holidays, amid an outbreak of infections in recent weeks.
The travel restrictions are a fresh blow for lockdown-weary Chinese families, who have endured some of the toughest — but most effective — rules in the world for more than a year.
China’s “zero-Covid” strategy will be pushed to the limits when Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics in February, as the country opens its doors to foreign athletes at the same time the Omicron variant will likely be surging in other parts of the globe.
The government in Beijing announced Friday that due to the upcoming holiday season and influx of foreign athletes, residents should avoid leaving the city during the Spring Festival, unless necessary.
Indeed the Omicron variant also comes just as many countries in the Asia-Pacific region with tough restrictions — including Australia and Japan — had tentatively started to loosen up and live with Covid-19.
Paris and Rome cancel New Year events
China isn’t the only country downscaling its festivities this year amid outbreaks.
The Netherlands is imposing a strict new lockdown, starting Sunday at 5 a.m., Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced in a televised press conference Saturday, according to CNN affiliate RTL News.
Indoor gatherings will be limited to a maximum of two guests until January 14, except on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, when that will be extended to four guests, according to RTL News.
All schools and extracurricular activities will close until at least January 9, RTL reports.
Sports competitions will be halted, and all indoor sports venues will also be closed, Rutte said, according to RTL News, though children under 17 years of age will be able to continue playing sports until 5 p.m. Sunday.
France on Friday announced large outdoor events and gatherings will be banned on New Year’s Eve as the country faces its fifth wave of infections, warning that Omicron will become the dominant variant by early 2022.
Denmark has also proposed closing cinemas and theaters, and limiting the numbers of people in shops the week before Christmas, as it attempts to control a spike in cases.
And Rome is among several Italian cities that have decided to cancel New Year’s festivities over coronavirus concerns, authorities said Thursday.
The Campania region has also banned feasts and alcohol consumption in public areas from December 23 to January 1. Venice also canceled its open air concerts and New Year’s Eve fireworks.
Ireland will also introduce an 8:00 p.m. curfew for restaurants and bars from Sunday, and limit numbers for both indoor and outdoor events, amid a surge in Omicron cases, it announced Friday.
China’s ‘zero-Covid’ strategy
Under China’s newly tightened measures, people from medium or high-risk areas are strictly prohibited from travel. Those on official duties, or working in the transportation sector, should obtain special permission and a negative Covid-19 test within 48 hours, the NHC added.
The rules are slightly eased for residents in “low risk” districts. They are only advised not to travel during the holiday season, and are required to have a negative Covid-19 test within 48 hours to leave the city.
As part of the designation, “medium risk” areas are those with less than 10 reported cases in the last two weeks. And “high risk” areas have more than 10 reported cases.
China currently has 12 “high risk” areas and 57 “medium risk” areas, NHC statistics showed Saturday.
China has fully vaccinated 1.186 billion people, accounting for 84% of its the population, NHC spokesperson Mi Feng said.
The airline industry’s recovery is being tested this holiday season as passengers return in near pre-pandemic numbers.
The resurgence in air travel is being fueled by pent-up demand and the availability of vaccines, along with an apparent lull in virus cases since summer’s big wave. The Transportation Security Administration says that passenger checkpoints are nearly as busy now as they were in 2019, before the pandemic.
Airlines have been ramping up capacity to meet this demand, but the industry is hampered by a lagging workforce recovery. They’re struggling to hire more staff, especially air crews. That’s raised concerns that major airlines could be in for a rough December.
“Like a lot of industries, they are competing for people,” said Peter McNally, an analyst at Third Bridge. “They know what they have to do, it’s just a matter of going out and doing it.”
Major airlines encouraged thousands of workers to quit last year when air travel collapsed during the pandemic. They were barred from laying off workers as a condition of federal pandemic relief. Those workers have not returned quickly enough, leaving the current workforce stretched. In many cases flight crews are reaching their limit of allowable hours, forcing flight cancellations because there aren’t enough cabin crews.
American Airlines faced such a situation in late October when it had to cancel more than a thousand flights because it was short-staffed. Southwest Airlines also made headlines for flight cancellations in October. Both airlines cited weather problems, though analysts have said that any actual weather or air traffic issues have just made the root problem of staffing shortages worse.
“One of the problems the airlines had so far in their coverage was the unpredictable nature in booking,” McNally said. “People are booking travel with less time between booking and travel and that makes staffing harder.”
American Airlines’ labor unions warned for months that the airline was scheduling more flights than its workforce could handle.
“These cases showed just how quickly weather and now staffing shortages can ripple through airlines just as they are seeking to maximize fall revenue within exceedingly slim operational margins,” said airline industry data provider Cirium in a recent report.
American, Delta and United spent the first half of 2021 slowly recovering from the worst of the pandemic. Each airline saw modest improvements in available seat miles, a key measure of passenger capacity. That measure had nearly recovered to pre-pandemic levels by the third quarter.
The push to increase passenger capacity may have been too much for some airlines. Employment for air travel is still down more than 9% from peak levels just before the virus pandemic gutted the industry, according to Labor Department data. Staffing levels will likely have to keep increasing to help maintain flight capacity for a full revenue recovery.