Analysis: Europe's airline industry and flying during a coronavirus pandemic
On Wednesday, after months of grounded planes and thousands of cancelled flights, Europe’s biggest airline Ryanair will ramp up its flying schedule to 1,000 flights a day.
Other major airlines are following suit, as businesses and indeed governments try to tempt nervous citizens to travel this summer.
Also on Wednesday, July 1, the European Union is expected to partially reopen its borders to a commonly-agreed list of countries including Algeria, Australia, Canada, Georgia, Japan, Montenegro, Morocco, New Zealand, Rwanda, Serbia, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia, Uruguay and possibly China.
Again a push, particularly by tourism-dependent economies, to allow visitors to holiday inside the EU. Millions of jobs hinge on some kind of return to normal.
So, what’s it like to fly again? Is the hassle simply too much? Well, I would argue not. I’m writing to you from Poland having flown here to cover the presidential election. And, you know what? It was fine.
Yes, there are clearly extra checks, you must frequently wash your hands, practice social distancing (though not on the plane) and wear a face mask. But, overall, the experience is much akin to before. It is comparable to the changes post 9/11 when extra security requirements were put into place. Cumbersome and annoying, but also important and easily manageable.
The most uncomfortable new experience is having to cover your mouth and nose with a mask, both in the airport and on the plane. After a while, this can, frankly, literally, become a pain. It gets warm and the straps can irritate when you’ve been wearing the mask for hours. But these are minor inconveniences when compared to the joy of having a well-earned break, as well as obviously protecting yourself and others. And thanks must be extended to the cabin crew staff, who are having to enforce new regulations – sometimes on an unwilling public – with professionalism, on top of their normal safety procedures.
This summer will be crucial for an airline and travel industry on its knees. The International Air Transport Association has predicted airlines are likely to lose €75 billion this year alone, with billions more in losses next year. Many have already announced thousands of job cuts, cuts to routes and some have been bailed out by governments. The French and Dutch governments have made public money – comprising €7 billion and €3.4 billion respectively – for Air France–KLM. Germany has helped the Lufthansa group with a €9 billion bailout. Others, like the Ryanair CEO, have branded these airlines as "state aid junkies". But they've been at the forefront of pleading with member states to reopen.
Overall prices are expected to remain competitive this summer as airlines compete for business to maintain routes. But prices are expected to rise next year, with fewer routes and rising customer demand. In many ways, it has never been a better time to travel.
And travellers aren’t just important to airlines, but to entire economies, too. In Greece, for example, tourism accounts for a quarter of the entire country’s GDP and employs a similar 26 per cent of the workforce. Having managed to contain the virus, Greece would be hammered economically if visitors simply didn’t turn up.
None of this is easy. Many people are understandably and rightly concerned about the virus. On Friday, Ireland's chief medical officer, Tony Holohan, said he was "beyond worried" that the country’s rate of infection could increase when air travel resumes, although no decision there has been made. Philip Nolan, Ireland's top epidemiologist, pointed out that infections brought in by travellers had increased some 11 per cent after hitting zero three weeks ago.
But, if we all decide to stay at home, things economically will only get worse. Businesses will close, people will lose their jobs and livelihoods, recessions will get deeper, with all the societal damage that will do. So, despite the uncertainty and element of risk, I would encourage you to get on a plane, go to your favourite cities, lie on Europe’s best beaches and enjoy the hospitality. The summer isn’t over, yet.