Will air travel ever recover from the pandemic?

The recent photographs of lines of idle aircraft parked on the runways at empty airports are a stark reminder of how the coronavirus has ravaged the airline industry. Scientists say the virus is not even a living organism, yet it has already overturned almost every aspect of our daily lives.

While all transport modes have been affected by the crisis, airlines have been particularly hurt. They were blamed for the global spread of the virus in the first place, carrying it from the source in Wuhan, China, around the world in what critics say is the perfect petri dish for infections. The unique selling point of airplanes, that they can zip people further and faster than any other transport mode, turned into its vulnerability. Most airplanes are grounded now, as authorities have restricted air travel.

Can aviation recover? The big carriers are bleeding money, and many are seeking state bailouts. Airports, airplane makers and holiday companies are also suffering.

Struggling EU airlines counting on State aid

The pandemic has already far outstripped the disruption caused by September 11, 2001 or the 2007-08 financial crisis. Most post-virus projections expect demand for flights to remain depressed for a long time to come.

The woes of Europe’s airlines are difficult to overstate. Airlines are seeking €26 billion in state aid to deal with the economic fallout. It includes €9 billion in French and Dutch government loans and loan guarantees for Air France-KLM, and an expected €10 billion rescue package for Lufthansa from the German government. Low-cost airline Ryanair has already complained that these rescues violate the EU’s state aid rules and has vowed to challenge them in court. Environmental campaigners want governments to attach binding climate conditions to any bailout.

Another complication is the issue of cash refunds for cancelled flights, enshrined in EU law. Airlines say this would be too much of a burden, and 12 EU member states have called for the law to be suspended, but the European Commission says it has to remain the de facto option – putting more pressure on struggling carriers.

Safety versus economic viability

But the main question is whether the industry can show it can offer safe transit. Airlines are resisting many of the EU proposals for making air travel safe. Industry association Airlines 4 Europe, which represents Europe’s 16 biggest airlines, disputes popular conceptions of airplanes as airtight tubes in which viruses can easily spread (High Efficiency Particulate Air filters constantly clean the air). It warns against putting social distancing measures like blocking middle seats, saying this would make flying operations economically unviable (Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary describes the idea as “idiotic”).

But they will have to adapt. And airports will have to be overhauled too: they are already gatekeepers, but they will be expected to do much more to guarantee virus-free environments. That includes temperature checks and COVID-19 testing equipment in terminals to screen passengers, as well as constant cleaning of surfaces.

In any case, it will take some time before people return to airports in the same way as we have known it before Covid-19. Today, the ailing airline sector is questioning its very existence in the face of the pandemic. One thing is for sure: flying will never be the same again.