On January 1, Delta Airlines flight 185 taxied along the runway at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, rising into the air to land nearly 17 hours later at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport. DL185 was one of a number of flights leaving the world’s busiest airport as measured by passenger numbers, and was travelling to the world’s eighth-busiest.
On March 11, the flight wasn’t running – one of nearly 10,000 flights to China that had been grounded as a result of the global pandemic Covid-19.
According to data gathered by flight consultancy FlightRadar24, last Wednesday there were 5,991 flights to and from Chinese airports, compared to 14,510 on New Year’s Day. Such is the impact of coronavirus on international air travel.
“The drop in commercial flights began with China in the third week of January and has continued into March,” says Ian Petchenik of FlightRadar24. “With the recently imposed US travel restrictions for much of Europe and the additional cuts being made by airlines based on falling demand, we’re expecting to see substantial reductions in the number of flights beginning [this] week.”
On Monday, major airline companies did exactly that. Virgin Atlantic said it will cut four-fifths of its flights and has asked staff to take eight weeks of unpaid leave. Ryanair and EasyJet confirmed plans to ground most of its fleets, while British Airways owner IAG said it will cut capacity by 75 per cent. Norwegian Air has cancelled thousands of flights and will temporarily lay off more than 7,500 staff.
This extreme response came quickly, despite the fact that coronavirus has impacted smaller airports the most. The spark of mass cancellations means that major hub airports like Hartsfield and Heathrow, where the number of flights to China dropped sevenfold between the start of the year and mid-March, will shut down worldwide travel.
Around 150 countries worldwide have measures limiting air transport, according to the International Air Transport Association, which represents airlines operating 80 per cent of flights in the world.
“This is the largest capacity reduction in the airline’s history, so all airports will be impacted sooner or later,” says Pere Suau-Sanchez, associate professor at the Open University of Catalonia and senior lecturer at Cranfield University.
Take Milan Malpensa, for instance, which is in the heart of Italy’s self-imposed national quarantine. On February 14, 288 flights were scheduled to depart from the airport, and 272 arrived, according to tracking data from FlightRadar24. Nearly a month later, on March 13, just 25 out of 259 scheduled flights departed. A veritable catalogue of destinations – Casablanca, Moscow, Abu Dhabi, New York and Doha – fell off the departure board as it became impractical for people to travel. By March 15, just 16 flights out of 231 – seven per cent of those scheduled – took off. The planes took off for Seoul, Rome, Munich, Cairo, Havana, Sharm-el-Sheikh, Dusseldorf, Istanbul, Chicago, Tokyo and Hong Kong (though some were cargo-only flights).
Things are less catastrophic at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, where on any given day since March between 50 and 100 scheduled flights have not departed. On March 13, 581 of 684 flights left the airport. Amongst the casualties were KLM, EasyJet and Alitalia flights to Rome, Venice, Naples and Milan – due to the country-wide closure. Scroll down FlightRadar24’s list of departures and a good number of flights are also of “unknown” status – among them, Iberia Airlines flights to Madrid (which entered a state of emergency that same day) and Flybe flights to the UK (which haven’t been running since the airline entered administration on March 5).
At Heathrow, cancellations have really stepped up since March 4. The day before, 617 of 623 scheduled flights departed from the airport; the day after, ten planes didn’t make it off the tarmac. By March 5, when Flybe abruptly stopped operating. 32 flights were cancelled, and the numbers have only grown since then. On March 10, 62 flights – or nearly one in ten out of the London airport – didn’t operate. On that day, Heathrow’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye released a statement saying “the threat of coronavirus is an increasing challenge for the UK and we are working day and night to ensure Britain’s front door is open and safe for our people and passengers. We will continue to work with the government to limit the impacts this will have on UK plc.”
But doors are closing worldwide, including in the UK. Only 88 per cent of flights due to operate did from Heathrow on March 15. As of the morning of March 16, flights out of Heathrow to Zurich, Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, Warsaw, Stockholm, Munich, Aberdeen and Paris were cancelled – all of them due to depart before midday.
Without taking into account Monday’s announcements, these numbers are only likely to get worse as more countries announce they’re refusing entry to international travellers. According to an analysis by Suau-Sanchez, US president Donald Trump’s month-long ban on visitors arriving from Schengen zone countries in Europe would affect two million seats on 7,280 separate flights. The worst-hit would be countries with major hub airports such as Germany (more than 520,000 seats affected), France (410,000 seats affected) and the Netherlands, where more than 1,000 flights carrying nearly 300,000 passengers wouldn’t fly.
“If there is a cascade of countries closing down access or limiting passenger traffic from other countries, flight and passenger numbers will drop massively in the short term,” says Suau-Sanchez. “There might be some ‘repatriation’ demand in the short-term, but this has only a temporary effect. If these measures continue for a month or two, traffic numbers will not recover easily after the first way of ‘repatriations’ or demand that is looking to go back to their countries.”
And for an industry already antsy about its future, there isn’t much good news. Things are likely to get worse. With the United States stopping flights from the UK, and the UK doing the same in the other direction, 837 flights from the UK carrying more than 220,000 passengers this week will be grounded.
Among those passengers affected is Graham Abrey, 30, who was meant to fly to New York with his wife for a holiday in April. “As far as I am aware, that can’t happen now,” he says. Tickets he booked for a Broadway show have been automatically refunded, but he’s heard nothing from the airline. That’s left him frustrated.
“Surely when they heard that there is no travel between the UK and USA they would let us know, and tell us the refund procedure – but maybe they’re preparing to do that now?”
Worse still, there’s little that the airline industry can do to stop the losses. “The reason for disruption is mainly exogenous to the industry and highly driven by the diverse prohibitions, measures and travel bans imposed in different countries and between different countries,” says Suau-Sanchez.
“Those hub airports with strong intercontinental networks to the US and which get feeding traffic from Europe will see also how traffic numbers fall due to the US travel ban and restrictions in Europe. So, it is inevitable that airports like Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris-Charles De Gaulle suffer.”
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