Biden holds a bilateral meeting with Merkel in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, on July 15, 2021. Image Credit: REUTERS

Washington: US President Joe Biden signaled progress toward lifting a ban on travel from Europe, raising hopes for a reopening of the $40 billion North Atlantic air corridor 16 months after flights were grounded by Covid-19.

Shares of Air France-KLM, Deutsche Lufthansa AG and IAG SA gained in Europe after Biden said his Covid-19 advisers are weighing when to lift the prohibitions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the issue in a White House meeting on Thursday.

“It’s in process now,” Biden said at a news conference with Merkel following their meeting. “I’m waiting to hear from our folks, our Covid team, as to when that should be done.”

He said to expect an answer “within the next several days.”

Removing the ban would also be a boon for major US carriers such as United Airlines Holdings Inc., American Airlines Group Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc. Former President Donald Trump barred entry from most of Europe, including the U.K., in March 2020, and Biden extended the policy early in his term.

Transatlantic routes are especially important for airline profit, because they comprise by far the biggest market for premium long-haul travel.

Flights between Europe and North America attracted 88 million passengers in 2019 and generated $37.5 billion in sales, according to the International Air Transport Association. While the market accounted for 2.2% of global traffic, it produced 6.2% of revenue, indicating the higher prices the routes command.

Both metrics fell more than 80% last year as the virus led to a shutdown in cross-border trips. European travel to the U.S. in May was still 95% below its 2019 level, according to the US Travel Association.

European governments have grown increasingly frustrated with the Biden administration for refusing to lift restrictions that prevent most of their citizens from traveling to the U.S., with officials citing inconsistent rules, economic costs and an outdated strategy for halting the coronavirus.

Fully vaccinated Americans can now travel to most European countries, and a quarantine requirement going to the U.K. is set to be lifted next week.

But the US hasn’t reciprocated, leaving half the market unfulfilled.

Americans living in Europe have generally been able to travel to and from the US throughout most of the pandemic.