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Air travel between PHL and London could recover thanks to coming travel rules

On Monday, the White House said it will lift the ban by early November for fully vaccinated travelers, who will also need to show a negative coronavirus test.

Travelers at Philadelphia International Airport on July 2, 2021.
Travelers at Philadelphia International Airport on July 2, 2021.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

As long as a U.S. ban on European travelers stayed in place, the outlook was unclear for a full pandemic recovery at Philadelphia International Airport. New plans from the Biden Administration to ease those restrictions are a welcomed relief, even while some questions remain, airport and airline officials said at an industry event Wednesday.

“We still are down about 30% when you look at what our numbers were in 2019,” PHL CEO Chellie Cameron said, “and the biggest reason for that is that we haven’t been able to handle trans-Atlantic service the way we were prior to the pandemic.”

Restrictions that barred visitors from most of Europe started last year during Donald Trump’s administration and have continued under President Joe Biden, much to the frustration of leaders in Britain and the European Union, the travel industry, and families separated by the ban. On Monday, the White House said it will lift the ban by early November for fully vaccinated travelers, who will also need to show a negative coronavirus test.

Over the coming weeks, the federal government is “going to be further defining what will need to occur for that travel to happen,” Cameron said during a panel discussion hosted by the British American Business Council of Greater Philadelphia and the trade group BritishAmerican Business.

The restrictions took a heavy toll on PHL because it’s the gateway airport to Europe for American Airlines, Cameron said.

“We had more service out of Philadelphia International Airport to the U.K. and Europe than any other American Airlines airport in the United States, and so when those restrictions went into place, it hit us in a really, really big way,” she said.

American Airlines, the dominant carrier at Philadelphia International, is currently operating one daily round-trip to London from PHL, compared with two daily round trips in 2019.

Total passenger traffic in July 2021 was 2.33 million at PHL, about 74% of the 3.15 million passengers in July 2019.

PHL and London’s Heathrow Airport began advocating jointly earlier this year for reopening travel routes.

“The decision we heard on Monday to reopen connections is absolutely vital and timely and will help to build business between our two great countries,” said Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye.

Still, he said, work remains to do away with testing requirements, and to make travel “seamless” for fully vaccinated passengers.

“As we get to that point of mass vaccination, which I think will probably be deep into 2023, I think we’ll see testing being removed, and we’ll start to get back to the frictionless travel we’ve been used to,” Holland-Kaye said.

Getting companies to resume business travel is another piece of the puzzle.

Rhett Workman, American Airlines’ managing director for Europe and Asia-Pacific, based in London, said he attended a conference in-person this week outside of London, for the first time in 18 months. A show of hands indicated the same went for “nearly everyone in the room ... and a fair portion of those traveled by air to get there,” he said.

“I think we’re ready for business to come back. It’s just convincing our corporate clients to get on a plane,” Workman said.

Starting in March 2020, American suspended flights from Philadelphia to Europe for about a year. The airline has added back some of those routes, and is currently flying from PHL to Amsterdam, Athens, Rome, and Dublin — in addition to London.

But American’s recovery out of Philadelphia has largely focused on meeting passenger demand for domestic flights.

“We’ve had to try to meet them where they are, and fly specifically to some of the sun destinations and the outdoor destinations,” said Lakshman Amaranayaka, American’s vice president of PHL hub operations.

Erik Evjen, with the research firm Tourism Economics, said he doesn’t expect a full travel recovery until 2024.

“It takes time to get back,” he said, “but we are expecting a significant jump in 2022, in part due to travel restrictions continuing to loosen.”