First identified at the end of November last year, the latest variant (dubbed “Omicron”) of the SARS-Cov-2 virus that causes the infamous COVID-19 disease has been increasingly making the headlines across the globe. In this short briefing, we are going to take a closer look at what sets Omicron apart and what kind of impact we can expect for it to have on air travel, both in the short- and medium-term.

Omicron was first identified in South Africa in the closing days of November 2021; however, it quickly became evident that it was not a contained strain and was spreading rapidly throughout the world. It soon replaced Delta as the predominant variant due to its much higher levels of infectiousness and transmissibility under all environmental conditions.

This also extends to air travel, where Omicron is reported to be two to three times more transmissible than Delta while taking a flight – although IATA’s Medical Advisor Dr. David Powell was quick to issue a clarification to state that while the numbers might look significant on paper, the advisory for air travel is unchanged and the overall risk posed to properly tested or vaccinated and masked passengers remains low. The same is also supported by the most recent ICAO Aviation Recovery Task Force guidance.

Indeed, while Omicron is more infectious, it also has much milder effects on average when compared with the previous strains, being reportedly 91% less fatal than Delta and thus requiring far fewer hospitalizations. With Omicron actually displacing Delta and other strains and building up immunity while not posing a significant threat can therefore be considered a positive step in the direction of Covid evolving out of a deadly pandemic towards being something of a seasonal endemic – eventually not too dissimilar from the common flu.

Accordingly, when it comes to air travel the main disruption caused by the Omicron variant does not seem to be somehow making the act of flying more dangerous, but rather over-zealous government action and the threat of border closures and mandatory quarantine even for those travelers who are fully vaccinated and/or tested negative. While this has a depressing effect on passenger numbers and RPKs in the short term, we at Hitit are of the opinion that once the peak is passed, it will actually help the industry recover faster in the medium term with more people building up immunity. And once governments start to scale back travel restrictions, as they will inevitably do, the industry will see rapid growth towards normalization – we estimate the first effects of this to be felt as early as March in preparation for the summer travel season.

As always, we will keep monitoring key industrial developments and plan ahead accordingly, together with our Community Partners.