The fallout of coronavirus on global aviation

Plane Talk: The horse Global Thrill (8-1 at Catterick) looks a better bet than airline stocks right now


Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Wednesday 04 March 2020 09:32 GMT
Desert pawn: British Airways 747s ending their days in Victorville, California
Desert pawn: British Airways 747s ending their days in Victorville, California

Europe’s silliest air route? Saarbrucken, Germany, to Luxembourg. This 49-mile hop is, ridiculously, flown twice daily – even though an excellent 75-minute bus link connects the two cities every hour or two for just €5 each way.

On Friday evening, the Luxair plane touched down in the Grand Duchy shortly before mine, a slightly more sensible Ryanair flight from Stansted. All 189 seats had been sold on this link, though I counted at least 20 empty as people stayed away from the airport, and Continental Europe.

With the Covid-19 coronavirus claiming ever more victims, these are strange times. Just in case you were ever tempted to invest in an airline, the past couple of weeks will, I hope, have persuaded you to put your money somewhere safer – such as on the horse Global Thrill at 8-1 in Wednesday’s 2.20pm at Catterick.

In the past 10 days, easyJet has lost almost 30 per cent of its value. And Ryanair is worth 22 per cent less than it was before the coronavirus scare took hold among travellers. Other giant airlines are showing commensurate slumps, as passengers vote with their feet.

“Many carriers [are] reporting 50 per cent ‘no-shows’ across several markets,” says the International Air Transport Association (Iata).

The organisation said one large airline has seen no new flight bookings to Italy, only cancellations – resulting in an astonishing 108 per cent drop in business to and from that country of wonders.

Late on Tuesday, Turkey announced it was banning flights from Italy – which has grounded around 20 flights a day to Istanbul. And refusing entry to any traveller who has been to Italy, the European nation worst affected by the coronavirus, in the past two weeks. That is exactly the sort of government action that erodes confidence still further in the airline business.

British Airways has cancelled hundreds of short-haul flights later this month to and from London Heathrow, plus a dozen services on the world’s most lucrative air route: to and from New York JFK.

One really significant dent in confidence: ITB, the world’s biggest travel convention, was due to start in Berlin on Wednesday 4 March. But almost all the 130,000 participants are elsewhere: hotels, restaurants and taxis in the German capital are empty.

Further afield, Singapore Airlines says it is trimming flights from Heathrow to Singapore and onwards to elsewhere in Asia and Australia. Asiana is cutting back from its hub in Seoul.

All these airlines are in reasonable financial shape. But many are not. In the airline business, cash is king, and carriers that were just about holding things together before the coronavirus crisis are now losing money at a rate that’s unsustainable for more than just a couple of weeks. I will not name any, because doing so can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But I fear I will be reporting soon on yet more failures.

Yet there will be some long-term gains once this virus is under control – or at least when the travelling public has become normalised to its insidious spread.

The main gains will be environmental. As big corporations lock down their executives, for fear of them becoming unhealthy or unavailable, some business travellers will become accustomed to tele-conferencing. If leaving on a jet plane becomes a rarer event, these executives will leave a light footprint and probably feel better.

If fewer planes are needed, inefficient aircraft will be grounded early. I imagine the airline boneyard in Victorville, California, is preparing for some more gas-guzzling 747s – possibly from British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. And perhaps the passengers on that 49-mile hop from Saarbrucken to Luxembourg may end up on that bus.

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