‘I was crying.’ How coronavirus grounded the aviation industry

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Becca Costello was offered her job as cabin crew at EasyJet in December. The 21-year-old signed her contract a few weeks ago, and had ploughed hours into taking online courses to get ready for her first day on the job on March 9. She had her flight booked down from Scotland to EasyJet headquarters in Luton for March 8. Then she got the call.

“I felt bad for him, because he was obviously making a lot of these calls and it can’t be easy,” she told a local radio station. “Because they’ve had to cancel flights recently because of the coronavirus, they’re not looking to take on any extra staff at the moment.”

Costello’s contract was torn up, her job offer rescinded, and she was placed back into EasyJet’s pool of prospective cabin crew applicants – with little more than a reassurance that she’d be prioritised at a later day.

“I was crying on the phone when he was telling me,” she said. “I was really gutted.” She had left her job to take up the cabin crew post. “I appreciate these circumstances are out of their control, but when you’ve signed a contract you’ve committed to starting that employment, so it is really difficult to get my head around.”

She’s not the only one. Another prospective EasyJet cabin crew member was halfway through a five-hour journey from the north east of England to her new home near Gatwick when she was told she wouldn’t be taken on either. She’d spent £1,500 on a house she now can’t afford to live in, and is tied into a rental contract.

And 21-year-old Connor Wilson had waited a year to start his dream job with the airline, leaving his previous role as a manager at McDonald’s, until he received a phone call two days before he was due to fly to London.

“They gave me a support number to phone for any emotional support as it was a tough time,” says Wilson. “They kept apologising and explained that the number is of good use and recommended that I call it.”

He too was crying on the phone. EasyJet has since said it will offer those affected a goodwill payment, including notice pay. Wilson set up a meeting with his manager at McDonald’s, and was able to get his job back.

The spread of Covid-19 across the globe has been felt especially keenly by aviation industry, which operates on precariously tight profit margins and relies on a steady stream of passengers. With unilateral travel restrictions levied and museums, tourist attractions and shops closed across many countries, airline companies have been some of the worst hit so far in the crisis.

IATA, the International Air Transport Association, which represents airlines that operate four in every five flights worldwide, estimates that the coronavirus could have a $130 billion (£104bn) impact on the industry – more than three times worse than the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which resulted in a $40bn hit to airlines.

FlyBe, the British airline which was previously bailed out by the government, has already gone to the wall. Others are offering staff the opportunity to take unpaid leave or to work shorter weeks. Implicit in the offer is the threat that if they don’t accept, the airline will have to start cutting jobs.

Qantas has reduced its future flying capacity by a quarter for the next six months in anticipation of decreased demand. The company’s share price has halved. Stock prices for International Airlines Group (IAG), the parent company of British Airways, Iberia, Vueling and Aer Lingus, has almost halved in the last month. American Airlines shares dropped from $30 a share in mid-February to $13 a share on Friday.

“These are extraordinary times and governments are taking unprecedented measures. Safety – including public health – is always a top priority. Airlines are complying with these requirements. Governments must also recognise that airlines – employing some 2.7 million people – are under extreme financial and operational pressures. They need support,” says Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general and CEO.

And it’s not just new entries into the airline industry who are panicked. The airline industry is trying to survive as everything around it collapses.

Walk through an airport today and they’re like ghost towns. Passengers have cancelled or postponed their flights, taking advantage of airlines who have changed their cancellation policies to try and keep customer goodwill.
Gate and last call announcements ring a little clearer through the tannoys – if they happen at all. “For us, it makes for quite an easy day out,” says one pilot at a major European airline, who asked not to be named because they aren’t authorised to speak by their employer.

“There’s no one late, the cabin crew are just sat about mainly, and have very little to do.” People have also been pleasantly surprised at the lack of delays.

The only place that is unusually loud is on the tarmac. Pilots across a number of airlines have been asked to keep their auxiliary power units (APUs), which power the cabin’s electricity and air conditioning systems, running while on the ground. In normal situations, pilots are mandated by airports to turn off the APU – which sits in the tail of the plane – while on the ground because it’s so loud when up and running. “But we’ve been told if we have any passengers on to keep it on regardless of the noise restrictions,” says the pilot.

It’s all part of an attempt to reassure those few who are still flying that the airlines are safe – the same reason KLM published a message from Pieter Elbers, the company’s president and CEO on March 11, reassuring passengers that “our hospital-grade HEPA filters are 99.99 per cent effective in preventing the spread of airborne bacterial and viral organisms such as Covid-19”.

Another thing that stops the spread of Covid-19 is washing your hands: as well as receiving advice through internal emails to increase hand washing frequency, cabin crew and pilots have been given bottles of hand sanitiser and told to use them between hand washing.

One pilot, who asks not to be named, is relatively blasé about the chances of catching it. We spoke before an American Airlines pilot based in North Texas had tested positive for coronavirus, and infection rates within the industry were limited largely to two British Airways baggage handlers and a handful of cabin crew members. “I feel like I can catch it in Waitrose as much as I can on a plane,” they say.

Not everyone is so laid back, however. The pilot knows of a number of colleagues who refused to fly to Italian destinations some time ago. “From the feedback I’ve had, it wasn’t an issue,” they say.

“They were taken off and it was fine. I understand that if anyone went and whinged about it and said they weren’t happy about it, they would have been taken off.” Airlines are able to do that because of the sheer lack of people taking flights: “I’ve seen way less than 20 per cent of the plane full,” says the pilot. “It’s not far from an empty flight, and I’ve heard reports of Virgin airplanes flying some of them around with practically no one around at all on a long-range flight, but it’s just to keep these airport slots.”

That has the pilot – and colleagues – worried. “Every airline will do what it can to survive and save money,” explains David Gleave, an independent air analyst. “I imagine many are hoping the summer will kill off some of the virus and people will be able to travel.” But the impact could be enormous.

We’ve already seen FlyBe disappear – which the pilot calls a “real change point” for the industry. “I think it’s probably fair to say they were going to go regardless of coronavirus, they were on their knees,” they say. “It can’t be blamed entirely for them going under, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

According to Gleave, Gatwick Airport is particularly worried about the future of Norwegian Airlines, which is a major carrier for the airport – and whose financial woes are an open secret in the industry. “Norwegian has been in a degree of financial trouble, where it’s trying to buy market share,” he says. “It doesn’t make money, really. It loses lots of it and is propped up by shareholders. Everyone is looking to make money in the summer, and not lose much money in the winter.” But when the winter is catastrophic, already wafer thin margins – around three per cent, says Gleave – become impossible to keep. The Norwegian prime minister, Erna Solberg, has promised to step in to save Norwegian if necessary.

“I think one of the problems airlines have with this crisis, compared to other situations where demand is slow, is usually where demand is affected, airlines traditionally would just drop prices and fill the aircraft,” says Pere Suau-Sanchez, associate professor at the Open University of Catalonia and senior lecturer at Cranfield University. “What is happening here is they aren’t able to do that.”

Companies are cutting back on corporate travel, while everyone else is being warned not to fly unless they have to. Governments are cutting back on the number of destinations airlines can fly to by closing their borders, in the case of the United States and India, or imposing impractically long quarantine periods on newly arriving passengers like Israel, or requiring people self-isolate on their return from affected destinations. A cheap five-day break in Italy becomes impractical for many if you have to self-isolate for 14 days afterwards.

It’s not just the airlines who are at risk of going under. “Airport revenues are going to be down quite significantly because they depend on passenger throughput to keep them in sales from duty-free shops and what have you,” says Gleave. He worries that a number of airports in the UK – highlighting Southampton and Exeter, which relied heavily on FlyBe for the majority of their operating flights on any given day – could well get into financial trouble. “It’s going to be pretty widespread across the industry,” he says.

One sector of the industry that is doing better than most are call centres offering support for customers looking to amend travel plans. Travix, a Dutch-based online travel booking company which operates sites including Vayama and BudgetAir, has been swamped with so many requests from customers to change their bookings that they’ve closed off their phone support system and instead are only available to respond via email.

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But the other facets of the industry are struggling. “Ultimately, you don’t make much money out of the airline industry,” says the pilot. “All the bits and bobs are very expensive. Keeping people trained costs a lot of money.” And what they’re seeing in terms of the industry trends don’t look good. “The market is completely wrecked for us as it stands now. If you’ve lost your job, you’re not going to get another job flying a plane for a long time,” they say. That’s something Suau-Sanchez agrees with. The industry as a whole took five years to recover from 9/11 to a position of profitability. This crisis is far larger.

“I’ve heard colleagues saying that this is certainly going to be bigger than the 2008 recession for the industry, and that was bad,” says the pilot. “They’re comparing it to 9/11.” The pilot’s airline, in line with many others, has offered them flexible working or unpaid leave. “I’ll probably do it, a week a month or something off,” they say. “I can’t really afford to do it, but I’ll have to – try to get something good out of a bad situation.”

Airline staff are worried about their future. They look at what happened to FlyBe colleagues, whose pilots started on a salary of around £27,000 as a first officer. “I doubt many of them have much savings,” they say. “It’s literally going to be getting a job at a Tesco as quick as you can to keep the money coming in, particularly given this is going to be going on for some time.”

Instead, they’re holding out hope that the coronavirus passes – airlines haven’t given much indication for anything happening beyond June – and that we all start to step back on to aircraft when possible. “The only thing I hope is that usual Britishness will come out in a couple of months: ‘I’ll not let it ruin my holiday.’” Whether that matches the reality of a global pandemic sweeping its way across the globe is another question altogether.

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