Belgium Attacks Threaten Summer Travel Demand for U.S. Airlines

  • Airport bombing occurs just ahead of Easter, vacation trips
  • Brussels attacks build on fear after Paris blasts last year

Terrorist attacks at the Brussels airport and subway are likely to cut into ticket sales for U.S. airlines that had been poised to benefit from strong demand going into the busy summer season.

Each of the three biggest U.S. carriers generate at least 12 percent of total revenue from trans-Atlantic travel, led by United Continental Holdings Inc., said Savanthi Syth, an analyst at Raymond James Financial Inc.

The Brussels blasts, which killed at least 31 and injured more than 230, will renew fears of travel to Europe after a series of assaults in Paris four months earlier, said Arnold Barnett, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and aviation security expert.

“The attacks in Belgium will create a sense of dread that I’m sure will have an impact on travel,” Barnett said in an interview. “How big, we don’t know. Some people might be fearful of traveling to any large city, including those in the U.S.”

Three coordinated blasts in Brussels occurred during morning rush hour Tuesday. In the November Paris attacks, gunmen and suicide bombers killed 130 people at a rock concert, restaurants and a sports stadium. The Paris events caused airline bookings to Western Europe to stall for a month, Hunter Keay, a Wolfe Research analyst, wrote in a report Tuesday.  

Summer Travel

The proximity of the latest attacks to the summer may cause particular anxiety for leisure passengers and hurt airline revenue during the second and third quarters, said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst George Ferguson.

The effect of Tuesday’s bombings probably will extend to travel demand across Europe, although it’s too early to assess the potential damage, said Syth, of Raymond James. Carriers that operate only in the U.S. may be hurt if demand drops for flights carrying international visitors across the country, eroding fares.

While the Brussels attackers appeared to target crowds at the airport rather than any airline, the larger issue is “ramping fear around going to the airport in the first place,” said Keay, of Wolfe Research. The U.S. government is stepping up security measures in response to the bombings.

“Clearly, the resiliency of a willingness to travel will be under great strain in the coming weeks,” Keay said.

Hitting Stocks

Airline stocks also could be affected, Keay said. Following the Paris attacks, domestic-oriented U.S. airline stocks outperformed those of United, Delta Air Lines Inc. and American Airlines Group Inc., by 6 percentage points and 3 percentage points in the week and month, respectively, after the event.

“That feels like it could happen again, but to an even greater extent, given compounding risk,” he said.

American, Delta and United led declines among U.S. carriers on Tuesday. American dropped the most of those three, 1.6 percent, while the Bloomberg U.S. Airlines Index fell 1.2 percent. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index slipped 0.1 percent.

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