In many ways, this week’s news was much as it has been for the past seven months: a litany of job losses, capacity cuts, depressing financial reports, and grim economic forecasts.
British Airways and Iberia owner IAG announced it was cutting its fourth quarter capacity levels – again, estimating that it would be down 70% on 2019, after earlier suggesting a 60% decline. The group blames confusing and ever-changing travel restrictions by European governments.
IATA similarly downgraded its forecast for air traffic levels in the Middle East and Africa, suggesting 2020 will be only 30% of the previous year – the airline body had not long ago suggested 45% was “as bad as it would get”.
And Cathay Pacific, already reeling from a collapse in visitor numbers in the midst of the Hong Kong protests last year, said it was cutting 8,500 jobs and axing its low-cost Cathay Dragon brand.
However, amid the storm clouds it was possible to spot some rays of hope breaking through.
The lifting of travel restrictions on Spain’s Canary Islands by the governments of the UK and Germany saw several European airlines introduce or add flights to the popular archipelago. With many sun-starved northern Europeans desperate for a winter beach holiday, it is likely that any such relaxation of measures could prompt a surge of demand to certain destinations.
In Australia and New Zealand, where travelling abroad and even sometimes domestically has been near impossible, seat capacity has been slowly rising over the southern hemisphere winter, albeit from rock-bottom lows, partly prompted by staycations and a public sick of lockdown and keen to take to the air again.
In Canada, another nation that has tackled the pandemic head on by shutting its borders, even to its southern neighbour, the first steps are being taken to make it easier for tourists and other foreign visitors to enter the country. Under a pilot programme by the federal and Alberta governments, some passengers arriving in Calgary will be able to take a rapid Covid-19 test, cutting the time they need to quarantine to as few as two rather than 14 days.
Until this year, rivals looked enviously on Southwest Airlines’ almost permanent profitable state. The carrier seemed immune to downturns such as 9/11 and the financial crash. But the Dallas-based airline posted a record loss of $1.2 billion for the third quarter.
Nevertheless, Southwest remains buoyant, insisting the worst of the downturn has passed and that demand is rebounding. It seems likely that low-cost airlines such as Southwest, able to offer discount fares, less dependent on business travelers, and agile enough to adjust routes and frequencies at short notice, will be the first to benefit from any uplift in demand once the virus is in retreat.
Meanwhile, remember Flybe? The UK-based regional airline was one of the first victims of the coronavirus crisis, collapsing in March – although many believe the troubled carrier’s crippling debt meant its days were numbered regardless of the pandemic.
Perhaps this week’s most unlikely good news story saw one of Flybe’s previous shareholders emerge as a possible buyer of the airline’s assets. Some believe that, once aviation returns, there will be a serious gap in the market for an operator able to connect some of the UK’s and northern Europe’s secondary cities with a business model based on low-cost turboprops and pitched at time-poor executives and leisure travelers.
This year has been one of fast-moving news stories, but, away from the pandemic, one of the most dramatic has been the rapid easing of relations between Israel and several Gulf states, creating perhaps the world’s only growth market for aviation in 2020.
Just months ago, the United Arab Emirates refused to recognize the state of Israel. Now, following a peace deal brokered by President Trump in August, events are moving quickly, with Israeli carrier Arkia vowing to open daily services to Dubai in early 2021. Flights between Tel Aviv and Bahrain are likely to follow.
Finally, as well as travel restrictions and quarantine requirement, and a depressed world economy, one of the biggest barriers to aviation returning to its former glory will be a reluctance of many passengers to travel on airliners because of the risk of contracting the virus from fellow travelers.
A study by Boeing and the University of Arizona, published this week, found that everyday disinfectants commonly used on aircraft are very effective in destroying the virus that caused Covid-19, and that passengers face little risk of catching the disease from disinfected surfaces.
It is the latest report to stress that airline cabins, far from being a petri dish for the virus, are in fact as safe, or safer, than many other environments. What difference that makes to the public’s willingness to return to the air remains to be seen.
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