Hugo Martín

Ship with infamous COVID-19 outbreak set to cruise again

The cruise ship that stranded thousands of passengers for days off the California coast in one of the nation’s first cruise ship coronavirus outbreaks returned to sea Sept. 25 for the first time in 18 months. The Grand Princess will depart from the Port of Los Angeles for a five-day cruise to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, part of a phased effort by the nation’s cruise companies to relaunch the badly battered $150-billion industry after a historic shutdown. Among the changes enabling its launch: only vaccinated passengers and staff are allowed onboard, masks are mandatory in common areas, and many cabins will have new air-filtering technology. “Given what happened last year, it’s very important for (the cruise company) that the passengers and crew are safe,” said Lara Handler, who is taking the cruise with her husband, Blake, to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. Before the pandemic, the couple booked cruises almost once a year. “They are doing what they have to do to make it so,” she said. “I feel pretty confident.” The 949-foot ship idled off the coast of San Francisco for several days in early March 2020 as public health officials and the cruise company deliberated over how to address an onboard coronavirus outbreak. At least 21 people on the ship tested positive for COVID-19. A week earlier, a 75-year-old passenger from a previous Grand Princess cruise had become California’s first COVID-19 fatality, marking a major turning point in the state’s battle with the coronavirus. Some cruises have been sailing off Europe and Asia for months, and ships began launching in the U.S. this summer from Texas, Seattle and Florida. The Carnival Panorama, departing on weekly voyages from the Port of Long Beach to Mexico, relaunched Aug. 21 as the first cruise to embark from Southern California. The Port of San Diego is scheduled to reopen for cruises Oct. 1. As part of the new health protocols on the Grand Princess, all passengers will be required to show proof of a full COVID-19 vaccination before boarding and proof of a negative viral test, taken within two days of their departure date. The crew will be vaccinated, and the first few cruises will be limited to no more than 75 percent of the ship’s 2,600-person capacity. Passengers will be required to wear masks in places such as elevators, retail stores, the casino and before being seated in the main dining room and the buffet area. The ship’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system has been upgraded with filters designed to remove fine particles and bacteria, and some units will include ultraviolet light treatment systems to kill viruses in recirculated air, according to Princess Cruises. Most major cruise lines — including Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean — require passengers and crew on nearly every cruise from U.S. ports to be vaccinated or to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that unvaccinated people avoid cruise travel. “The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads easily between people in close quarters aboard ships, and the chance of getting COVID-19 on cruise ships is high,” the agency says on its website. The extended shutdown of operations nearly capsized the industry. Carnival Corp., the world’s largest cruise company and parent company to Princess Cruises, reported losing more than $14 billion since the pandemic started. Royal Caribbean, one of Carnival’s largest competitors, lost more than $8 billion during the pandemic shutdown, the company said. A survey by New York University’s School of Professional Studies found that only 10 percent of the more than 2,300 Americans surveyed planned to take a cruise this year, down from 36 percent in 2019. Still, cruise companies say reservations are on the rise because of pent-up demand by cruise enthusiasts who have been away for more than a year. Carnival reported during its latest earnings report Sept. 24 that booking volume slowed last month because of an increase in coronavirus Delta variant cases, but cruise bookings for the second half of 2022 have already surpassed the rates of 2019. “The broader environment for travel, while choppy, has improved dramatically since last summer, and we believe it should improve even further by next summer, if the current trend of vaccine rollouts and advancements in therapies continues,” said Carnival’s CEO Arnold Donald. “We have also opened bookings for further-out cruises in 2023, with unprecedented early demand.” Royal Caribbean said in its April-to-June earnings report that the company received about 50 percent more new bookings compared with the previous three-month period “with trends improving from one month to the next.” By June, the company said bookings were up 90 percent compared with the first quarter of the year. Bookings on Norwegian Cruise Line for 2022 are expected to surpass booking levels for 2019, the company said last month. But the industry’s problems aren’t over. The Carnival Vista, sailing from Galveston, Texas, reported a COVID-19 outbreak last month of 26 crew members and one passenger. A 77-year-old passenger who complained of COVID-19 symptoms on the ship later died after being evacuated to a hospital. Carnival, Princess and other cruise companies also face a wave of lawsuits filed by the families of passengers who have died on cruises and passengers who were stricken by COVID-19 while on a ship. But such lawsuits are not likely to win huge awards for passengers or their families partly because the cruise companies operate under maritime law, which limits damages from deaths, illness and injuries that take place at sea, said James Walker, a Miami attorney whose firm has filed several lawsuits against cruise ships during the pandemic. “The lawsuit payouts by cruise lines are, in my view, an insignificant cost in their business model,” he said.

Airfares are lower than usual right now, but prices won’t stay down for long

The nation’s airlines are sweating over an unexpected drop in business travel in the last few weeks — and that’s welcome news if you’re a traveler looking to save money. This month, domestic airfares are down 5 percent from September 2019 and international fares down about 8 percent, drops that industry experts attribute partly to the traditional price slump that happens at the end of the peak summer travel season plus the rise in coronavirus cases due to the Delta variant, according to the travel website Hopper. Prices for flights to Europe are at a five-year low, down more than 30 percent compared with the same month in 2019, according to the travel website. But the discounted prices are not expected to last long, with increases likely when travelers start booking holiday trips. “Everything we are seeing says people are definitely going to be traveling,” said Adit Damodaran, an economist for Hopper. The airfare roller coaster shows how the pandemic continues to affect the nation’s $1.5-trillion travel and hospitality industry. For the first time since COVID-19 took hold in spring 2020, travel demand this summer began to match and briefly surpass pre-pandemic levels, giving airline executives hope that the industry would soon rebound from more than a year of financial losses. But in the last few weeks, airlines have reported a steep drop in demand and an increase in reservation cancellations. September typically marks the end of the peak summer travel season and the start of business travel for conferences, conventions and meetings. Industry experts say the uptick in business travel never materialized because of the surge in COVID-19 cases. As a result, airlines are forced to drop prices to fill the seats left empty by business travelers. “In a normal year, the fares would stay high because people would travel for business, but that is just not happening,” said Madhu Unnikrishnan, editor of the publication Airline Weekly. The average domestic round-trip flight costs $260, down from $290 at the end of August, according to Hopper. International round-trip fares have dropped to an average of $700, down from $760 at the end of August. The average round-trip price of a flight to Europe from the U.S. is $565, down from $665 at the end of August and the lowest price in five years, according to the website’s data. That price was an average of $940 at this time in 2019. But flying to Europe could become more difficult soon. The European Union recommended this week that its 27 nations reinstate restrictions on tourists from the U.S. because of rising coronavirus infections. The guidance isn’t mandatory, and member countries have the option of allowing fully vaccinated U.S. travelers in. The slump in business travel and rise in overall cancellations have airlines worried. Southwest, United, Delta and American airlines all revised their earnings outlook for the July-to-September quarter. “The company continues to experience softness in bookings and elevated trip cancellations, especially close-in, as a result of the rise in the COVID-19 cases associated with the Delta variant,” Southwest Airlines said in a Sept. 9 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. “Close-in” cancellations are usually defined as being within 21 days of departure. In its own Sept. 9 investor update, Delta Air Lines said “initial revenue expectations were predicated on an acceleration of business travel through the September quarter. The pace of business travel recovery has paused as companies delay or scale down initial office reopening.” United Airlines said it expects the drop in demand to push total revenue down 33 percent in the July-to-September quarter. Airlines are not the only businesses feeling the pain. The hotel industry is projected to lose more than $59 billion in business travel revenue in 2021 compared with 2019, according to a report by the American Hotel &Lodging Assn. and Kalibri Labs. If the number of coronavirus cases drops or remains unchanged, travel experts say, Americans are likely to book air travel in high numbers for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season. And higher demand usually means higher prices. “Most airlines have said Thanksgiving and Christmas and year-end holidays remain solid,” Unnikrishnan said. “So far, people are not canceling their holiday plans.” Bookings and internet searches for holiday flights have started to rise. “Right now, flight prices for the holiday travel season are up across the board compared to both 2019 and 2020,” said Giorgos Zacharia, president of the travel website Kayak. Domestic round-trip airfares around Thanksgiving are priced at an average of $300, up 23 percent from 2020 ($245) but down 11 percent from the pre-pandemic 2019 fares ($335), according to Hopper. The average domestic round-trip airfares for travel around Christmas are $430, up 71 percent from 2020 ($250) and up 10 percent from 2019 ($390). Rick Seaney, chief innovations officer at 3 Victors, a travel data company, said making flight reservations for the holidays can be tricky. Booking early — up to six weeks before departure — usually ensures that travelers get the lowest prices. But Seaney said another coronavirus surge could keep prices down, allowing travelers to book flights much closer to the holiday season. “The question is will the prices get better or worse if you wait,” he said. “It depends on what will happen with the pandemic.”
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