Press play to listen to this article
Just a few weeks ago, it seemed like the worst was over.
The U.S. had finally lifted its 19-month-long travel ban on Europe, and the revival of lucrative transatlantic routes promised to buoy an industry that’s estimated to have lost $6 trillion since the start of the pandemic. British Airways chief Sean Doyle called it a “moment to celebrate.”
But that optimism may turn out to be premature. The arrival of the coronavirus Omicron variant, first detected in South Africa, is causing countries to rush out new travel restrictions.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called on EU countries to suspend all air travel from variant-hit countries. At the time of the announcement, that meant restricting flights from six southern African nations.
As clusters of Omicron cases have started to appear across the bloc — including Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Germany and the Czech Republic, as well as the U.K. — countries are taking things a few steps further.
Poland, for example, has announced a 14-day quarantine for anyone coming from outside the EU’s visa-free Schengen zone. Spain has tightened its travel rules, requiring vaccinations for people coming from the U.K.
Switzerland, meanwhile, has introduced a 10-day quarantine and negative PCR test requirement for non-Swiss nationals or residents traveling from countries including Belgium, the Netherlands, the U.K. and the Czech Republic.
The British government has moved to reintroduce PCR tests and self-isolation requirements for all visitors from abroad (except for those traveling from Ireland). And further afield, Israel and Japan have effectively closed their borders.
Airlines are watching with foreboding as countries batten down the hatches.
International Air Transport Association chief Willie Walsh accused governments of responding to the new variant — about which much still remains unknown — in “emergency mode.”
“As quickly as possible we must use the experience of the last two years to move to a coordinated data-driven approach that finds safe alternatives to border closures and quarantine,” he said.
Airlines for Europe (A4E) said new variants should be monitored but border closures should be a “measure of last resort.” Travelers could find alternative routes to enter the EU via non-EU hubs, where the same standards of testing may not apply, the lobby group suggested.
Before news of the variant sent governments into a tailspin, air traffic had been picking up.
In August, the number of commercial flights in the EU increased by 48 percent compared with August of last year. The industry put that down to the introduction of the EU’s digital COVID certificate — the bloc-wide pass that logs a passenger’s vaccinations, tests or recovery status, which helped streamline rules that had previously varied among countries and even regions.
The chaos caused by Omicron comes as the EU is already eyeing stricter travel measures to keep in check a dramatic coronavirus resurgence across the bloc.
Portugal, for example, was clamping down on travel before Omicron, announcing it would require anyone flying into the country to show a negative test before boarding, with airlines facing steep fines for failing to check.
Last week, the Commission updated its travel guidelines, recommending that EU vaccine certificates for travel only be considered valid for nine months. It also suggested tying travel rules within the EU to passengers’ own personal health risk, rather than their country of departure.
The plan is supposed to push the vaccine-hesitant to get jabbed and encourage the double-dosed to take a booster shot.
It’s still up to national governments to decide if they want to back the proposals; two national officials told POLITICO that countries are split on whether to support the nine-month validity period or give themselves more time to roll out boosters and push to extend it to 12 months.
A4E called the Commission proposal “premature,” saying it “may put people’s ability to travel at risk,” given many EU countries have yet to make third doses available to most of their adult populations.
Figures from Our World in Data suggest that very few Europeans have received booster shots, though some countries, including Belgium, are now rushing out booster programs. The U.K. announced on Monday it would make boosters available for all adults.
The Omicron variant may have highlighted the urgency of pushing ahead with vaccination campaigns, but it’s also highlighting the wildly different approaches taken by EU countries.
At a press briefing on Monday, Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer urged member countries to stick with the EU’s COVID certificate, “in particular when it comes to not imposing undue barriers to travel for those who either have been fully vaccinated, have a PCR test or can show that they have recovered from COVID.”
Still, with experts warning it’s too early to know how effective current vaccines will be against the new variant — and some countries closing their borders once again — the travel industry says it’s fearful of what lies ahead.
Eric Drésin, secretary-general of the European Travel Agents’ and Tour Operators’ Associations, said “it’s essential to give scientists the time to assess and explain the risks of Omicron,” but urged EU governments to do a better job coordinating restrictions to avoid crippling the travel industry just as it was recovering.
Carlo Martuscelli contributed reporting.
Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email [email protected] to request a complimentary trial.