What happened

Airline stocks soared Tuesday, led by United Airlines Holdings (UAL -2.02%), up 6.9% as of Tuesday's close, closely trailed by Spirit Airlines (SAVE 3.57%) and JetBlue Airways (JBLU 3.39%). Even the industry's laggards are outpacing the broad market's gains, though, with American Airlines Group (AAL -0.47%) and Southwest Airlines (LUV 2.08%) higher to the tune of 4%. Shares of Delta Air Lines (DAL -3.04%) were in the middle of that range, sporting a 5.9% gain for today's session. Reports of brisk travel demand despite the rapid spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19 buoyed the group that has otherwise been struggling of late.

So what

Airline shareholders can thank Barron's, mostly. Citing data published by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, the news venue reports air travel for the past five days has consistently exceeded 2 million passengers per day. That's still only between 81% and 85% of 2019's comparable count, before the coronavirus pandemic crimped demand. Bank of America underscored the idea, commenting in a report posted on Monday that it's also not seeing any measurable adverse impact on air travel despite the new variant. The collective data suggests the air travel industry continues to recover despite the rapid spread of omicron here and abroad.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates the number of new known COVID-19 infections has been growing steadily -- and rapidly -- since late October, with 73% of the latest new case reports coming from the omicron variant.

A passenger jet taking flight.

Image source: Getty Images.

This latest chapter of the pandemic's saga posed a potential threat to airlines' business. In late November the White House implemented travel restrictions on anyone coming to the United States from a country where this particular strain had been detected, while other nations took similar measures.

Even without newly implemented restrictions, though, airlines and their investors were understandably fearful. Travel market research outfit Destination Analysts noted just a little over a week ago that only 76% of American travelers were comfortable taking a trip, down from 82% as of mid-October. In fact, Destination Analysts indicates that the onset of omicron made more than half of U.S. residents less interested in traveling than they were just a few weeks earlier. In a similar vein, although few other airlines dared to join it in its warning, Britain's discount airline easyJet cautioned that it was already seeing weakened demand.

Now what

The data supplied by the Transportation Security Administration and reported by Barron's is positive to be sure, but not necessarily a complete basis for suddenly stepping into the likes of Delta, Southwest, and Spirit Airlines.

Sure, the numbers continue pointing to a rebound for the business. It's just as possible, however, that travelers are simply looking to travel while they can before omicron infections become rampant, making travel not only dangerous, but perhaps impossible. It's also possible many of these travelers had already made holiday travel plans that would have been too difficult or too costly to cancel. It's even arguable that pandemic-weary consumers are going to shrug off the risk of infection just this once, but won't plan any new trips until the pandemic is in the rearview mirror.

Whatever the case, Tuesday's big gains don't change that fact that shares of nearly all airline stocks including powerhouses like Delta, American, and United Airlines are still in long-term downtrends that will only be snapped once it's clear that COVID-19 and any of its potential new strains are no longer any viable threat. We're just not there yet.