Coronavirus: Airlines struggle as deadly outbreak causes ‘bookings to collapse to zero’

IATA pleads for airport landing rights to be preserved

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Tuesday 03 March 2020 10:50
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Matt Hancock confirms number of coronavirus cases in UK has risen to 51

No new bookings, just cancellations: that is one leading airline’s current sales pattern for Italy.

The slump in airline bookings due to the spread of Covid-19 has been laid bare in figures revealed by the International Air Transport Association (Iata).

One unnamed airline – understood to be one of Europe’s biggest carriers – is reporting a fall in flight bookings to Italy of 108 per cent.

Going into negative territory is explained by Iata as: “Bookings collapse to zero and refunds grow.”

The organisation said: “Many carriers [are] reporting 50 per cent ‘no-shows' across several markets.”

Airlines are generally able to pocket the revenue from customers who fail to take their flights, and in many cases also keep Air Passenger Duty; there is no obligation to pass it on to the Treasury if the traveller does not fly.

But Iata warns: “Future bookings are softening and carriers are reacting with measures such as crew being given unpaid leave, freezing of pay increases, and plans for aircraft to be grounded.”

It reports another airline whose sales worldwide are currently over one-quarter down on a year ago.

The airlines’ association is asking airports to relax the usual “use it or lose it” rules on take-off and landing slots.

These are assigned for the winter and summer seasons, with the latter running from late March to late October.

Many airports, including the two main London gateways, Heathrow and Gatwick, are “slot constrained”. Airlines are able to keep their portfolio of landing rights only if they operate at least four out of five flights during the season.

British Airways, which has more than half the slots at Heathrow, has announced more than 300 flight cancellations to and from the airport, which is Europe’s busiest.

Iata said: “Given these extraordinary circumstances as a result of the public health emergency, the collective view of the airline industry is that the application of the 80 per cent rule during the upcoming season is inappropriate.

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Flexibility is needed for airlines to adjust their schedules according to extraordinary demand developments.

The plea came as Ryanair reported robust passenger traffic for February. The airline carried 8 per cent more travellers, with a “load factor” – the proportion of seats occupied – of 96 per cent.

But Europe’s biggest budget airline has warned: “The load factor in the months of March and April is likely to be lower than normal due to the fall in bookings during that period in response to the Covid-19 virus outbreak in a number of European countries.”

Ryanair has cut about a quarter of flights to and from Italy as a result of the slump in sales.

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