FlightGlobal’s Airline Business Index tracks the sector’s health based on data from the largest airline groups on passenger numbers, revenue, fleet, and workforce. The latest quarterly figures suggest the industry is almost three-quarters of its pre-pandemic size. Depending on your disposition, that represents the sort of vigorous bounce-back many would have thought unthinkable in the depths of the crisis 18 months ago…or an industry spluttering along at 75% of where it should be.
Of course, a lot depends on where in the world you are. While US airports were jammed full over Thanksgiving and regional carriers are warning of pilot shortages that threaten to disrupt their operations, Asia Pacific is barely taking baby footsteps out of what for many countries has been a 20-month isolation. In October, the region’s airlines carried less than 4% of the international passengers they did in the same month in 2019, according to the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines.
Those tentative moves back to normality continue, however. India this week became the latest nation to be added to Singapore’s quarantine-free travel scheme for vaccinated travelers, as the prosperous city state opens to the world again. New Zealand – one of the most cautious countries when it comes to Covid restrictions – has laid out a “phased approach” to eventually allowing foreign nationals to visit from the end of April 2022.
Airline bosses were this week in a mixed mood about recovery. AirAsia Group, whose airline holdings in various Southeast Asian countries have been pummeled by travel restrictions, is confident of a strong year-end recovery continuing into 2022 as markets open, releasing pent-up demand for visiting friends and family. Speaking at its latest quarterly financial results announcement, founder Tony Fernandes insisted the business has enough liquidity to see it through the following year.
On the other hand, Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary is despondent, despite his airline being one of Europe’s strongest performers over the past year. He warns that a “panic” reaction by several European governments over rising cases could undermine the recovery. He told a conference this week that the industry faced a “very fraught period between now and Christmas”, with the threat of new restrictions making customers nervous about making plans for festive travel.
UK-based Virgin Atlantic – a business that depends entirely on the devastated long-haul market – is somewhere in the middle, reporting this week that bookings for transatlantic and other flights are improving but a long way from pre-pandemic levels. Chief executive Shai Weiss says that while people are keen to travel for the holidays, ticket sales beyond three to six months are slow because “waiting to see” consumers and business executives are still hesitant to make medium-term plans.
As it has since March 2020, public sentiment has lurched and risen like a ship in heavy seas. When news is good, or major changes to regulations are announced, a rush to book flights rapidly follows. However, it is likely to be some time before anyone who travels feels confident enough to plan too far into the future. And for airlines that makes fleet and workforce forecasting the most unreliable of sciences. Do you summon furloughed pilots back now for a summer season that may not take off?
Finally, an unpleasant side effect of the recovery of the US airline market, amid strict rules about mask-wearing, has been a rise in unruly passengers and so-called air rage incidents. This week, attorney general Merrick Garland urged federal prosecutors to “prioritise” crimes that threaten passenger and crew safety. Patience has run out with those who endanger fellow flyers by making a sky-high fuss about face-coverings, rather than following the rules – and that is no bad thing.
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