The pandemic has racked the travel industry to an unprecedented degree, according to industry experts who claim airports and hotels are seeing historic drops in business during the usually bustling holiday season.
Doug Yakel, spokesman for San Francisco International Airport, said passenger activity at the main gateway to the Bay Area for travelers is down by 80% this month compared to the year prior. What’s worse is that the daily average of 13,226 passengers passing through the airport in December is down 15% from last month, when the daily average was only 15,572 passengers.
In previous years, the airport was steadily setting new ridership records — especially during the holiday season. For context, Yakel had said in 2018 that officials expected as many as 2 million travelers to pass through the airport between late December and New Year’s Day.
The pandemic and resulting travel restrictions, which require travelers into the Bay Area to quarantine for 10 days after arriving, have scrambled traditional patterns too, said Yakel, who could not anticipate which day this year would be the busiest of the season.
“Difficult to predict what the busiest days will be, given how dynamic the current case trends are,” said Yakel in an email. “I can say that passenger activity has been trending down since Thanksgiving, and is still far from what it was during the 2019 holiday season.”
Federal, state and local authorities have all instructed those celebrating holidays this year to avoid travel and instead keep their gatherings small, comprised solely of those who live under the same roof.
For those who are flying, health officials have determined that the virus is not spreading easily because of the air circulation and filter systems on airlines. But the risk still exists, because travelers are seated close to strangers for sustained periods of time. Also, there are often crowds at airports and common areas that are shared among large groups.
Those who are traveling are urged to wear a mask, maintain safe social distance, wash hands or sanitize frequently, avoid touching the mouth, nose or eyes, avoid contact with anyone who is sick, get a flu shot and get tested before and after the trip.
Those who are sick are heavily discouraged from traveling, for fear of spreading COVID-19 or other infections.
The threat posed by the pandemic is not solely harming the airport industry, but also devastating local hotels and restaurants, said John Hutar, CEO and president of San Mateo County/Silicon Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In a normal year, Hutar said holiday travelers filling hotels would offset the losses suffered by the suspension of business gatherings during the winter months. But in the absence of all travel, Hutar said many in the hospitality industry are struggling to keep their heads above water.
“The shelter order in effect removes all of the legs that support our travel industry stool — creating a dire situation for the hotel/restaurant/travel industry,” he said in an email.
What’s worse, he said the hardship has placed many in the tough spot of balancing their potential health risks against a threatened livelihood.
“Our industry is caught in a unique situation: While everyone wants to be part of the solution that brings closure to the pandemic, the current travel restrictions have made a dire financial situation which has shaken the travel industry that much more untenable,” he said.
And while there is some hope on the horizon regarding vaccine distribution, Hutar noted that enthusiasm is measured by rising fears of a mutated virus.
In the absence of clarity regarding when the health threat will subside and the industry can begin to recover, Hutar said those in the hospitality industry are stuck attempting to survive amid a year unlike any other.
“The holiday travel season this year is very different from what we have ever seen before,” he said.