What started as something vaguely worrying that we in the West could distance ourselves from — “it’s only affecting travel to mainland China, after all” — has wildly escalated, with confirmed cases jumping up by hundreds per day and the entire population of Italy now on lock-down.
The situation is changing at such a pace it’s hard to keep up with developments, but one thing’s for sure — it marks a near-unprecedented crisis for the travel industry and, in particular, airlines.
Carriers started cutting their routes, tentatively at first, now with the equivalent of a machete, not because of health concerns but because of a huge drop in demand. People are too worried to travel, and that means cancelled bookings, half-empty planes and a massive dent in revenue.
That’s only set to get worse: President Trump has announced a ban on all foreign nationals travelling from the Schengen countries in Europe; the Czech Republic has just closed its borders on citizens from 15 “high-risk” nations, including the UK.
As the travel advisories keep piling in, airline capacity is slashed further. Travellers are staying put. They’re grounded, just like me — albeit for a very different reason.
It’s not something I ever thought I’d be saying — it’s not really something I want to say, when I think of all those cabin crew, all those pilots, all those let-down holidaymakers — but this could be the thing that breaks the aviation industry as we know it. The flying business has always been a precarious, knife-edge one, as we’ve seen in the case of Monarch, Flybe et al. Throw in a global pandemic (and an economy subsequently in freefall) and, quite honestly, only the strongest, the leanest, the most agile and the most robust of airlines can possibly survive. The rest will surely go the way of Wow Air, Primera and Air Berlin (all of which went bust in the last three years).
It may not be a particularly jolly thought, but it might have one very poignant effect — it could actually put us in a position to lower the number of planes in the sky, the very thing that many activists and scientists argue is vital if we’re to beat the oncoming climate crisis.
As more people than ever inadvertently join me in the flight-free movement, I hope we can all do what we need to do to stay safe, to stop the spread, to self-isolate wherever it’s necessary. But when we come out the other side of this, I hope all of us are able to truly appreciate the freedom that travel has given us, however we choose to do it. The aviation landscape may have changed by then, but the possibility of packing a bag, picking a place, and heading off somewhere new to discover will not — whether it’s a staycation or a train across the Channel and beyond.
It’s funny to think that, for years, governments and airlines and everyone else in between has been telling us we couldn’t reduce the amount we fly: it was impossible, they said. The world is more connected than ever before, they said. It’s completely unthinkable that it could change, they said.
Yes, the virus outbreak is terrifying, awful and devastating; but it is also the one thing that has made the unthinkable, thinkable.
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