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Europe travel restrictions to have broad impact on Atlanta

]The Delta ticket counter at the International Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
]The Delta ticket counter at the International Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

A Trump administration decision to ban most European travelers from coming to the U.S. will have wide-reaching effects in Atlanta, where the airport serves as a major gateway to that continent.

The month-long restriction, aimed at combating the spread of the coronavirus, is leading to flight cancellations to and from Europe, stymieing the flow of business travelers and halting travel plans for thousands.

That will have a major impact on the tourism industry and the local economy. Atlanta is home to scores of global companies and multi-national firms that depend on being able to travel easily between Europe and the United States.

“Suspending travel on such a broad scale will create negative consequences across the economy,” Alexandre de Juniac, CEO of the International Air Transport Association, said in a written statement. “In normal times, air transport is a catalyst for economic growth and development.”

During an address to the nation on Wednesday night, the same day the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, President Donald Trump announced that the suspension would take effect Friday at midnight. The travel restrictions, he said, would not apply to the United Kingdom, nor to Americans who undergo screening.

The ban is causing confusion for those who already have flights booked and aren't sure if the restrictions apply to them, if their flights will be canceled or if they will be able to get back into the United States if they travel to Europe.

Canton resident Sandra Hordos said she was “on an emotional roller coaster all week” as the list of cancellations grew. Her daughter, Marissa is a student at Georgia State University and was scheduled to leave Friday for a 10-day spring break trip to Paris.

“She’s obviously devastated that she’s not able to go,” said Hordos, who waited six hours for a call back from Delta to cancel the trip. “This was her dream.”

Also, Atlanta had an estimated 1.3 million international visitors last year, with 25% of them coming from Europe, according to preliminary estimates provided to the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Delta Air Lines uses its massive Atlanta hub as a gateway to Europe, with routes to Paris, Dusseldorf, Brussels, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich, Zurich, Barcelona and Madrid.

The airline announced Friday it will eliminate all flying to continental Europe for the next 30 days, and that period could be extended. It will continue flights to London.

Atlanta-based Delta is seen by analysts as the U.S. airline most affected by the travel restrictions. Its flights to the restricted areas made up 11%-16% of its total flight capacity in the first half of this year, according to Raymond James analyst Savanthi Syth. The airline's stock has plummeted over the last couple of weeks and closed at $33.71 Thursday, down 21% in one day.

Lufthansa, which flies from Atlanta to Frankfurt, is suspending the route until further notice. Air France and Dutch carrier KLM said they would maintain flights at reduced frequencies for two weeks to several destinations in the U.S.

In March 2019, more than 880,000 international passengers traveled on Delta to or from Atlanta. More than 36,000 traveled through Hartsfield-Jackson on Air France that month, as well as nearly 31,000 on KLM and more than 13,000 on Lufthansa.

One factor that may lessen the blow of the European restrictions: “Encouragingly, the travel ban is still before the summer peak travel season,” Syth wrote in a note to investors.

Delta has 90,000 employees, including more than 36,000 in Georgia. Even before the new travel restrictions were announced, the airline said it had seen a 25-30% decline in bookings. It announced a hiring freeze and voluntary leave for employees.

Hartsfield-Jackson officials said that on Tuesday, there was a decline of nearly 27% in passenger counts, year-over-year. As the world's busiest airport, Hartfield-Jackson is an economic engine for the entire Southeast, with 63,000 workers based at the facility. Airport officials say the facility generates $82 billion in economic impact.

While the travel ban on Europe exempts the United Kingdom and does not apply to U.S. citizens and their family members nor to permanent residents, Americans will need to self-quarantine for two weeks after returning from most of Europe, according to Vice President Mike Pence.

Some 850,000 international visitors flew to the United States from Europe, excluding the U.K., in March of 2019, accounting for about 29% of total overseas arrivals, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Those visitors spent an estimated $3.4 billion in the U.S.

“Temporarily shutting off travel from Europe is going to exacerbate the already-heavy impact of coronavirus on the travel industry and the 15.7 million Americans whose jobs depend on travel,” said U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow in a written statement.

Travelers and family members of those abroad are concerned about how they will get home.

Delta said it will waive change fees for tickets already issued for travel to, from or through Europe and the U.K. through May 31.

In many ways, Hordos is grateful that her daughter’s trip is being canceled. “I’ve been the concerned parent not able to sleep,” she said.

Some of Marissa’s friends had already left for Paris earlier this week, raising concerns about how easily they would be able to get back if some flights are canceled amid the travel restrictions. One of them just flew out Wednesday.

“It breaks my heart that she went down there to find this out,” Hordos said.

Even though his daughter in honeymooning in Bali, which is unaffected by the European restrictions, Erik Swanson is concerned. She is now trying to return sooner than anticipated from a trip she planned for a year and a half.

“We were naturally concerned before they left that things were going to get worse — and they have,” Swanson said.

Hartsfield-Jackson by the numbers

  • 12.7 million international passengers passed through the Atlanta airport in 2019
  • International passengers made up about 11.4% of the total
  • Roughly 63,000 workers are based at the Atlanta airport
  • Hartsfield-Jackson has a roughly $82 billion economic impact

Source: Hartsfield-Jackson