Aviation is the most global of the global sectors. It employs millions of people, supports the survival of tens of millions more, and is a crucial part of the nervous system of international business and leisure. Today, this entire sector is practically stopped by efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of daily flights has fallen by 80% since the beginning of the year. In some regions, air traffic has been suspended entirely.
The airline industry is in survival mode, with airlines, airports, and support companies desperate to conserve their cash reserves, as the inflow of cash has practically dried up. The expectation is that many jobs will be lost. Australian Qantas has put 20,000 employees on leave, and 700 American Airlines pilots have agreed to anticipate their retirement.
IAG, an airline linked to British Airways, recently announced that it would cut 12,000 jobs. Experts believe it will take many years for the sector to return to the 2019 productivity level. But even so, attention is gradually turned to the future – and how airlines around the world can slowly return to a scenario remotely like normality.
There are apparent logistical challenges: aircraft will need to be ready to fly; airports should be prepared for them and the public; flight schedules will need to be redesigned, and teams will need to be on standby. But there are also many issues involved in uncertainty. No one yet knows for sure what the flight possibilities will be in the post-pandemic future, nor what the sanitary conditions imposed on the crew by the governments will be.
There are currently around 17,000 aircraft parked at airports around the world, according to consultancy Acend Cirium – that is, two-thirds of the global fleet. Even stopping, these aircraft require regular maintenance, and some need to be ready for immediate use, as many airlines are conducting passenger repatriation flights or carrying cargo. Other aircraft will need a week in advance to be prepared to fly, according to industry experts.
Qualification of labor
Another critical factor is the level of human qualification needed to allow the industry to function. Pilots need flight time (in the air or simulators) to maintain their “score,” or permission to fly. They also need to undergo constant medical evaluation. Other key teams, such as air traffic controllers and engineers, also have time-sensitive qualifications.
Although many airlines and airports are trying to keep part of their staff available and up to date with certification, other employees are prevented from continuing to work. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said it had taken steps to avoid an accumulation of overdue credentials when the industry can resume its activities.
“In the face of current extraordinary circumstances, an exception has been determined,” a CAA spokesman told the BBC, stressing that “each airline needs to explain to us how this can be done safely.”
But, even though there are evident logistical problems involved in the process of resuming air activities, and in ensuring that there are enough pilots and technicians available, these are not the main problems haunting aviation executives. The real question, they say, is the number of different countries that have imposed restrictions on air travel and uncertainty about when those restrictions will be lifted.
“We are trying to have a global restart plan,” explains Alexandre de Juniac, director-general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). “The biggest challenge is how and when different countries are going to lift travel restrictions.”
He says that such restrictions will undoubtedly remain in effect beyond the middle of the year – in some places, perhaps until the end of 2020. Juniac believes that countries’ domestic routes will reopen first, followed by short-lived international routes. Intercontinental flights would follow, but Juniac admits that he has not yet planned for this part of the resumption.
One point that causes a lot of uncertainty is how much social distance will be required on scheduled flights. How will people be separated from others in airport lobbies, security lines, and on the flights themselves? What tests will be needed, and how will they be put into practice? These are commercial dilemmas for both airports and airlines. One example is airport restaurants and shops, which are an essential source of profit for airport operators.
“(The profit from these spaces) allows us to keep the fares we charge from airlines low, which is reflected in the price of tickets,” says Karen Dee, chief executive of the Association of Airport Operators. “We don’t want to reconfigure everything at our airports (now) to find out, six months from now, that there is a vaccine (against COVID-19) and that such measures would no longer be necessary.”
IATA argues that any measures introduced should be homogeneous and put into practice in a coordinated manner. “We need to avoid the kind of situation that followed (the attacks) on 9/11,” says Juniac. “At that time, we saw a lot of different security measures being implemented.”
Airlines can also reconfigure themselves: Lufthansa, for example, is operating aircraft whose middle seats are being left vacant, to allow some degree of social distance onboard. As a short-term measure, this can help passengers fly more safely, but at a high cost. To make a profit, airlines need as many seats as possible to be occupied on as many flights as possible. If they operate at only 65% of their capacity, “it will certainly change the way the industry operates,” explains Juniac.
Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, for his part, described the idea as “stupid.” In this scenario, getting the aircraft back in the air is perhaps the most natural part – the hard part will be convincing people that airplanes are safe environments, and this may require long-term changes.
“People still want to travel on vacation, and there is certainly still an interest in short-term travel later this year,” says a tourism industry executive. Concerning business travel, analysts believe that the scenario will be different, and seriously threatened by the current pandemic.
The global recession ahead, the cancellation of conferences and business events, and even the need for current businesses to adapt to the online model instead of the face-to-face are elements that should delay the recovery of the airline industry. But the biggest problem for the industry as a whole, as it prepares to return to heaven, is that no one knows what the near future will look like.