Remember when transatlantic low-cost was going to be the next big thing? Rather than flying on large thirsty twin-aisle jets, with generous premium cabins, between major hubs, price-conscious consumers would be offered no-frills fares and service between secondary cities on newer-generation smaller widebodies such as the Boeing 787 or long-range narrowbodies like the Airbus A321XLR. It felt like a market niche just waiting to be exploited.
Now Covid has forced one of its pioneers, Norwegian, to abandon its long-haul network to focus on European routes, as it battles to stay in business. The Scandinavian airline had invested heavily in its transatlantic credentials, acquiring 35 Dreamliners, all of which are now in storage. Norwegian’s exit will leave several US cities bereft of a direct link to Europe, but with no sign of a swift bounce back for long-haul travel, and Norwegian struggling for cash and investment, the move seemed inevitable.
US rival JetBlue said in November it still plans to launch transatlantic services in the second half of 2021, pitched firmly at the leisure market, which it expects to return to the skies with “tremendous pent-up demand for travel”. However, some believe that this segment could go the same way as all-premium transatlantic services, a flurry of which got off the ground in the years after 9/11 with boutique start-ups such as Maxjet and Silverjet. Only Paris-based operator La Compagnie remains.
With Covid-19 vaccines programmes rolling out around the world, many airlines and governments are turning their sights to the sort of enforcement regimes that will need to be in place to restore passenger confidence and ensure the airways do not again become a conduit for the virus. In Australia, which has been largely successful in fighting the pandemic by stopping most international flights, there is much debate about how global air links can be restored safely.
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce says the airline plans to require visitors to the country to be vaccinated, and that the vast majority of passengers support this. Meanwhile, in the USA, unions representing cabin crew have welcomed a plan by president-elect Joe Biden for a federal mandate for interstate travelers on aircraft and other forms of transport to wear masks. Although most airlines have their own rules on masks, the Trump administration refused to make it federal law.
The US domestic air network is the largest in the world, and has kept going during the pandemic, with travel numbers at certain times of the year – such as Thanksgiving – not far short of 2019, despite warnings about the dangers of transmitting the virus. However, stuttering revenues have had an impact on the industry, with Delta Air Lines this week announcing a staggering $12 billion loss for 2020, a year its chief executive Ed Bastian describes as the “toughest” in its 92-year history.
Finally, while Covid-19 and the messy US Presidential election dominated the news in 2020, the opening of relations between Israel and several Gulf states was a significant international breakthrough after decades of animosity, and has led to aviation developments unthinkable just a year ago. This week, Hungarian low-cost airline Wizz announced that it was launching services from its new base in Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv.
Head of Strategic Content at FlightGlobal
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