Robin Hayes, CEO of JetBlue, told CNBC on Tuesday that he was optimistic that coronavirus vaccine use would help boost demand for air travel around the world, drawing on his experience with his own family.
"Just before I came to this show, I called my mother in the UK. She just had her Covid vaccination today," Hayes told Closing Bell. "She is already planning her trip to visit me and her grandchildren in 2021. There are hundreds of millions of people like her around the world," he added, calling the Covid-19 vaccine "a game changer for everyone."
The aviation industry was one of the hardest hit during the pandemic that led to dueling health and economic crises. While air traffic has improved from its spring coronavirus-era low, traffic remains well below 2019 levels. For example, 752,451 people passed through TSA security checks on Monday, compared to 2,250,386 the same day of the week last year according to the US government.
However, the start of Covid-19 vaccinations has given hope for a more complete economic recovery in 2021, particularly in troubled sectors like travel and hospitality. Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine delivery began last week in the UK and this week in America.
Supplies are limited for now, but production capacity is expected to increase significantly over the next year, allowing more people to be vaccinated. Dr. Moncef Slaoui, who leads the Trump administration's vaccination effort, said any American could be vaccinated against Covid-19 by June.
For JetBlue in particular, Hayes said he was confident the company would offer transatlantic flights to London in the coming months.
"We actually believe that flights to London will start at exactly the right time next summer," said Hayes. "There may be fewer business travelers than normal, but the price we will get will, in my opinion, make our new Mint or Premium experience very accessible to many leisure travelers as well."
"We're seeing our leisure business largely recover by the end of next year. We think business travel will take a little longer, but that's only about 15% to 20% of what we fly," he said. "And we were able to convert a large part of this capacity into new leisure markets."
Although Hayes expects flight demand to improve over the course of 2021, the New York City-based airline continues to take steps to keep costs in check. CNBC reported last week that the reduced salaries for top executives will persist through next year and the performance increases will be suspended for most employees.