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Vaccine tourism: United increases flights to Houston, and the price

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Lee Steele
Lee Steele is the founding director of Roof Cat Media and has published Yucatán Magazine and other titles since 2012. Sign up for our weekly newsletters, so our top headlines will appear in your inbox each Monday and Thursday.
A United Airlines jet connecting Yucatán and Houston sits at the Mérida International Airport. Photo: Courtesy

(Updated April 24 to reflect United’s announcement that it is increasing flights between Mérida and Houston to twice daily.)

Yucatán residents eager to be vaccinated against coronavirus are packing United’s MID-IAH flight — the only one linking Mérida and Houston. Texas has no residency requirement for vaccination and booking a shot online has been simple.

The Houston flight, which normally drops its frequency on the United Airlines calendar by spring, will be flying there and back two times a day. The increased frequency runs June 3-Sept. 7, when the airline normally cuts back its flights to twice weekly.

Recent ticket prices ranging from $708 to $1,200, a hop across the Gulf of Mexico that on average used to cost under $400, according to Kayak. Tickets that once sold for under $500 were in the $640 range beginning May 7. Some flights have been totally booked.

Residents under 50, who aren’t even mentioned in Yucatán’s plans to vaccinate its population, have two options: wait or fly. For the general public not working in the medical front lines, Yucatán has been working on second doses. Residents in their 50s were promised a jab starting sometime in May.

The Houston-Mérida flight has often flown with numerous empty seats, and the airline appeared reluctant to bring the flight back after some false starts.

The Shares of United Airlines tumbled by 8.5% Tuesday after its first-quarter loss was larger than expected. International flights are important to expats and the tourism industry in Yucatán, where the only other viable option is Cancún, more than a four-hour drive away.

Overall, United is no different than the rest of the airline industry in its struggle to cope financially with the pandemic. United reported a first-quarter loss of $1.36 billion after the market closed Monday. Business and international travel are still down about 80% from pre-pandemic levels.

CEO Scott Kirby told investors that things “are going to gradually get better as business travel comes back and as borders reopen.”

International travel, Kirby said, will depend on the lifting of virus-related restrictions, which he added might not happen until next year.

This week United announced new flights to Greece, Croatia and Iceland, and Kirby is hoping that restrictions between the U.S. and United Kingdom will be eased by summer for vaccinated passengers. On the flip side, the State Department said Monday that Americans should reconsider foreign travel because of the high rates of COVID-19 in most countries.

Before the pandemic, United relied equally on U.S. leisure travel, business travel, and international flyers. Domestic leisure travel accounts for most of the airline’s passengers right now. But those vacationers spend less, which is crimping revenue at United and other airlines.

Mexico has fully inoculated nearly 4 million people out of a total population of 126 million.

Mexico agreed to buy 77.4 million AstraZeneca doses, making the drugmaker its top vaccine provider. It will also receive AstraZeneca shots through the COVAX vaccine-sharing program, which will supply a total of 51.5 million doses from various manufacturers.

Additionally, Mexico has agreed to bottle AstraZeneca shots using vaccine material produced in Argentina, with an initial supply of 150 million doses to be distributed in Latin America. The first doses were expected the first week of May.

With information from The Associated Press and Reuters

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