Air Travel Was Gaining Momentum. Now What?

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Confidence about the course of the coronavirus pandemic has helped put passengers back on planes in recent months, and Thanksgiving week is shaping up to be one of the busiest periods for U.S. air travel since it came to a near-standstill in the spring. News that effective vaccines may be close at hand lifted airline stocks.

But new concerns over the spread of the virus are rattling travelers and threatening airlines’ hopes for the months ahead.

United Airlines said Thursday that bookings had slowed and cancellations had risen in recent days because of the surge in virus cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans to avoid holiday travel altogether, presenting the industry with its latest wrenching question: How dark can this winter get?

“There’s two trains running toward us,” said John Grant, a senior analyst with OAG, an aviation data firm based near London. “One is full of optimism on a vaccine, and the other is, sadly, full of more caution. Who gets there first?”

When Angela Henry booked her Thanksgiving flights months ago, she had no idea that the United States would be setting new coronavirus infection records as the holiday approached. She also didn’t know that she would be pregnant.

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Ms. Henry, 30, and her husband agonized over whether to stick to their plan to fly to Atlanta from Northern California to spend Thanksgiving with his family. After soliciting advice from loved ones and medical professionals and weighing the risks, they recently decided to go through with it.

“It’s been tough,” she said. “I was just trying to find that rational middle ground.”

Airlines argue that flying is generally safe because of the various policies put in place to limit contagion, high-end air filtration aboard planes and the relatively few published cases of coronavirus spread in flight. But the science is far from settled, travelers are still at risk throughout their journey and many would-be passengers have been discouraged by lockdowns and outbreaks in the places they hoped to visit.

Passenger volumes remain down more than 60 percent from last year, and the industry is losing tens of millions of dollars a day.

Travelers waited to board their flights at Miami International Airport last month.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York TimesDespite the uptick in Thanksgiving travel, passenger volumes are down more than 60 percent from last year.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Airlines for America, a group representing the nation’s largest carriers, said it expected more people

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