COVID-HQ: Airlines are Itching to Get Back in the Air

Kevin Rozario


June 7, 2020

COVID HQ vol 4 1

Since last month’s global update, airlines have become more vocal in their demands to resume flights after weeks of lockdowns in many jurisdictions. Their survival depends on it – and airports need their key tenants back and flourishing to ensure their own prosperity. Analysis from OAG confirms that in the week of May 18, global capacity broke through 30 million seats. But put in perspective “that remains some 83 million seats below the same week last year” comes the reminder from OAG’s chief analyst John Grant. Earlier this week, Airlines for Europe (A4E) urged national governments to reopen European Union borders in a coordinated way and reinstate freedom of movement for EU citizens. The EU has outlined proposals for this in order to revive tourism. A4E – whose 16 members represent over 70% of European air traffic – says that EU countries “must mutually recognize health and safety regulations” to avoid quarantines and similar blanket health measures.

London Heathrow has gone from 200,000 passengers a day to the same number in a month.

Quarantines would discourage travel and impede a swift return of passengers. London Heathrow has called for a ‘quarantine exit plan’ so that it can recover from a calamitous 97% decline in passenger numbers in April to just 200,000. This is how many the busiest hub in Europe would usually serve in a single day. Heathrow warns: “Demand is expected to remain weak until governments lift lockdowns.” There are moves to do exactly this in Europe and North America. “Summer holidays are in sight,” says A4E’s Managing Director Thomas Reynaert. “But travellers need assurances that they can plan trips with confidence. For this, we need to implement coordinated and consistent processes and measures across European airports.”

Low-cost Carriers’ Leap of Faith

Ahead of A4E’s call, some airlines were taking their own initiatives. In April – when the pandemic was raging in Europe – Hungary’s low-cost carrier Wizz Air announced plans to restart some flights from London Luton Airport from May 1. Destinations included Budapest; Belgrade in Serbia; Bratislava and Kosice in Slovakia; Lisbon; Tenerife; Tel Aviv in Israel; and several Romanian cities. Another low-cost airline, Latvia-based Air Baltic, stepped up its route network in May with the reopening of flights to Tallinn and Vilnius in mid-May, to Helsinki and Munich from May 25, and to Berlin from June 1. EasyJet will also resume a small number of mainly domestic flights from 21 European airports as of June 15. They include 10 airports in the UK, seven in France, two in Portugal and one each in Switzerland and Spain. Meanwhile the biggest low-fares carrier in Europe, Ryanair, plans to return 40% of its flight schedules from July 1, subject to restrictions on intra-EU flights being lifted, and public health measures being in place at airports. The ambitious step will mean almost 1,000 daily flights, restoring 90% of its route network prior to COVID-19. Ryanair’s CEO Eddie Wilson says: “After four months, it is time to get Europe flying again and restart Europe’s tourism industry.”

From July 1, Ryanair will restart flying from most of its 80 bases across Europe. Above are sample destinations from the UK and Ireland

Governments in tourist-dependent Mediterranean countries such as Greece, France, Italy and Spain have hinted they may soon give the green light to intra-EU flights. Italy has announced arrivals from the EU and UK at its airports from June 3 will not need to quarantine in the hope of salvaging the summer tourism season.

Travelers Need to be Assured Safety Protocols are in Place

Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) has set up an Airport Industry Recovery Advisory Panel to assess the operational needs of airports which include passenger safety measures related to COVID-19. It is seeking government backing for wearing masks. “We are urging the federal government to issue formal guidelines for the use of facial coverings in passenger terminals,” says ACI-NA President and CEO Kevin Burke. “This will re-instill confidence.” The call has been reiterated by the Canadian Airports Council. President Daniel-Robert Gooch says: “Federal leadership and national coordination in health and travel standards is essential to a successful restart and recovery in air travel in Canada.”

Delta is sanitizing every flight at every airport using electrostatic sprayers

Delta, America’s second biggest airline, has made masks obligatory. Having announced second quarter schedule cuts of about 85% versus last year, Delta’s pared down June program has reinstated some suspended US domestic and international routes. However, the airline has capped seating to between 50% and 60% until July to ensure customer spacing on its aircraft. The decision to put safety over revenue may have helped boost its market value but Delta’s nine US hub airports will not gain much in traffic terms for now. Southwest has also opted to limit seats until July. North of the border, Air Canada claims it has seen some improvement in travel demand. Nevertheless its existing plans are to reduced capacity by 85% to 90% in the current quarter, and by approximately 75% in the third quarter of 2020.

Gathering Momentum to Lift Aviation

After months of being grounded, it seems that progress – both political and practical – is being made so that airline fleets can get back in the air. Airports, having shut terminals and run on minimal infrastructure, will then be able to restart their services in a meaningful way. However, the crunch point will come when they get back to being busy. Logistics and passenger processing to accommodate social distancing need attention now. In a coordinated effort, on May 20 ACI and its airlines counterpart IATA called on governments to ensure that safety measures introduced for airports and airlines would be driven by scientific data and evidence. The association’s paper – Safely Restarting Aviation – outlines a pathway to do that while minimizing the risk of COVID-19 transmission. The roadmap is designed to reassure travellers about their health and safety concerns across the entire passenger journey. On social distancing – which Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye says is “impossible” at airports – the paper admits it is a useful measure to limit airborne disease transmission. However, ACI and IATA state that the rules for airports and airlines must be “consistent with what is applied for other transport modes – in particular urban public transport used for access to/from airports”. ACI World director general Angela Gittens notes: “There is currently no single measure that could mitigate all the risks of restarting air travel but we believe a globally-consistent, outcome-based approach is the most effective way of balancing risk with the need to unlock economies.”

Flying in a Bubble?

Across all regions, the emergence of potential geographic travel ‘bubbles’ or direct travel ‘corridors’ between certain countries offers hope. These are mainly emerging in areas where infection risks are deemed low, but also where the political will to ‘get back to normal’ is high. They include the Baltic region, Australasia and the US domestic market.

Potential travel bubbles around the world and their share of airline capacity

As mentioned earlier, OAG data show continued positive developments in the Asia region led by China. For five weeks in a row, the country has seen capacity improvements compared to the week before. OAG analyst Becca Rowland says: “This week’s has been the most marked yet, helped no doubt by the important Labour Day vacation.” In Europe a small improvement has been seen since April 20 thanks to some route re-openings, while North America has yet to see an upturn as the chart below shows. Of the top 10 country markets for seat capacity today, six are in Asia Pacific which indicates that a recovery remains focused there. Going forward, the aviation sectors in North America and Europe will strengthen, but to what degree is uncertain.

Asia’s capacity increases since mid-April contrast with limited gains elsewhere

Evidence that measures to combat COVID-19 in airports are working will increase travel. One worry for passengers today is infection through air circulation in enclosed aircraft cabins. However, according to several sources filters that are of High Efficiency Particulate Absorbing (HEPA) standard clean cabin air to hospital operating theatre quality. They are further assisted by high levels of fresh air in vertical circulation. There is also limited evidence to show that passenger-to-passenger transmission in cabins is not likely to be very high, although more studies are needed. Droplet borne rather than airborne transmission is a more probable route of infection, so wearing face masks throughout the passenger journey should further alleviate fears. While there are clear signs of positive momentum in the airline business, they can’t disguise the generally poor outlook for aviation and aerospace. Getting back to 2019 levels of activity could be several years away. A reminder of that was this week’s decision by air engine maker Rolls Royce to axe 9,000 jobs out of a global workforce of 52,000, predominantly from the company’s civil aerospace business. Warren East, Rolls-Royce, CEO says: “We must respond to market conditions for the medium-term until the world of aviation is flying again at scale.” That could be a long wait during which further retrenchments and downsizing are inevitable across many segments.

Who Will Travel Where?

We should be mindful of how this pandemic continues to spread geographically as this will likely impact which international travel corridors will be the safest – and possibly open fastest. According to WHO data, confirmed COVID19 cases in the Americas have continued to increase reaching 2.1 million (on May 19) to overtake Europe’s 1.9 million.

Global cases of COVID-19 are still rising with the Americas, Eastern Mediterranean and Southeast Asia all increasing their share

The Europe region – which includes Israel and Russia – has seen its share of the world total reduce while the inappropriately named Eastern Mediterranean – which includes the entire Middle East (excluding Israel), coastal North Africa and parts of the Horn of Africa – is seeing a rising share, now almost 360,000 cases. Southeast Asia – which includes India, Thailand and Indonesia – has also had rising case clusters, but fewer than 150,000. Western Pacific – which includes China, South Korea and Japan – has fewer than 170,000 cases and a falling share of the world total.