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Holidays have been cancelled, the skies are empty and thousands of aircrafts are grounded at airports across the globe. As the aviation industry faces an unprecedented crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, major companies have already triggered plans to restart their operations again to avoid collapse.
This year, the aviation industry is set to lose $252 billion (£207bn), according to the International Air Transport Association; air traffic in Europe fell by up to 90 per cent in April alone. The drop-off in activity was sharp: data from FlightRadar24 shows commercial flights plummeting from an average of 100,000 flights per day at the beginning of March to around 30,000 per day just four weeks later.
Despite the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s advice against all non-essential travel abroad, on May 1, Hungarian low-cost airline Wizz Air became the first European carrier to resume flights, initially by flying a limited number of flights out of Luton, starting with ten per cent of its overall fleet. The Lufthansa Group also hopes to run 1,800 weekly roundtrips to 130 destinations by the end of June.
Budget airline Ryanair went even further, announcing that it would be restoring 40 per cent of its flights to their regular schedule from July 1, operating nearly 1,000 flights a day. This is a huge leap up from the 30 skeleton flights it is running at the moment.
By resuming travel, airline companies will avoid adding to their already costly bill of customer refunds for cancelled flights. Even if their planes were completely empty, companies would not be legally required to refund passengers the cost of their ticket if their flight were to go ahead, in spite of government guidance. The Association for British Travel Agents estimates that the industry as a whole has racked up a £7bn refund bill. On May 1 Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary told the BBC that the company was struggling to process a backlog of 25 million refunds.
Rory Boland, travel editor of consumer rights group Which?, says that Wizz Air is one of the worst examples of an airline avoiding issuing refunds: the company refused to pay passengers back the money for its flights departing from Luton and won’t rebook those flights unless they pay a fee.
“That’s despite the fact that the passengers cannot travel to the airport – they’d be breaking the ban against non-essential travel in the UK – and they can’t enter many of the countries where [Wizz Air] will be going to,” he explains. “You would also be travelling against official advice, which would invalidate your travel insurance.”
And even though airlines like Ryanair, Lufthansa (and, tentatively, British Airways) have set the goal of restarting flights by June and July, the logistics of resuming operations won’t be easy. Pulling a fleet of aircrafts together, which have been out of action for a long while, takes time.
Gary Doy, senior lecturer in air transport management at Cranfield University, says that if an airline has decided to keep their aircrafts maintained and operational, those aircrafts can be put into service relatively quickly. “If they’ve been mothballed into long term storage, then the requirements for getting those aircrafts back into the air will be much more drawn out,” he says.
While airlines like British Airways have grounded their fleet and put them into long-term storage, Ryanair has been running ghost flights with no passengers on them to keep its fleet operational. Aviation trade publication Simply Flying surveyed 47 of Ryanair’s aircrafts in March and found that all but one of them had been flown. Thirty-five of the aircrafts sampled had been flown in a loop around the airport, while the remaining 11 had been put into service at least once every four days. This exercise means that the aircraft doesn’t have to undergo extensive maintenance checks in order for the airline to get them up and running at short notice.
Doy says that there are various checks that airlines will need to conduct, ranging from short-term checks, overnight checks and more major checks. These can include replacing seals, checking hydraulics, pressurisation, engines and fuel. Some airlines, like Virgin Atlantic and American Airlines, have taken the opportunity to retire some of their aircraft early, so that they don’t have to pay to keep them in long-term storage and continue the maintenance checks. These aircrafts were already due to be retired due to their efficiency rating, but this has been sped up. “About 45 per cent of an airline’s costs are fuel. So [the airlines], knowing that they are going to need a smaller fleet, have obviously taken the decision to retire the less efficient aircrafts early,” says Doy.
Meanwhile, all of the pilots that have been furloughed or temporarily put on leave will need to undergo training again before they can take off. According to Civil Aviation Authority guidelines, if a pilot is flying a commercial aircraft that will be used to carry passengers, they will need to have successfully conducted three takeoffs and landings within the previous 90 days. These checks can be conducted in a simulator.
But even if airlines are able to get their fleet off the ground and ready to fly by July, willingness to board planes may still be low. “Their hope is that they can stimulate the market,” says Doy. “Their business model – certainly Ryanair – is based on large numbers of people flying low fares, But that means high load factors.” And with high occupancy in planes, social distancing becomes impossible to enforce.
Around 37 per cent of US consumers surveyed by McKinsey expect to reduce their international travels once the crisis has subsided, compared to just 18 per cent who expect to travel more. For those who decide to take flights, it is going to be a very different experience.
“The main challenge that I see for airports and airlines right now is a very similar one to the challenge we faced after September 11, which is passengers are scared,” says Max Hirsh, professor of airport infrastructure at the University of Hong Kong. Face masks on planes, for example, are already becoming mandatory on many airlines. KLM, Air France and Wizz Air have all already enforced strict face mask policies. Alongside face masks, Ryanair will implement measures that reduce the amount of contact passengers have with the aircraft and one another. Passengers will be able to buy pre-packaged snacks and drinks using contactless payments and ask flight attendants to use the toilet.
Thomas Budd, lead academic at the passenger experience laboratory at Cranfield University, says that some airlines are recommending that people don’t check in baggage to avoid an extra touchpoint, while airports have also implemented thermal scanning systems.
There are airports around the world that have already restarted operations that can give us a glimpse into what things might look like when more flights resume. At Hong Kong International Airport, all arrivals have to be isolated for 14 days, with a nearby conference centre turned into a vast Covid-19 testing facility. Once a passenger lands at the airport, they are transported to the conference centre to be tested, and after that are able to quarantine at their home in Hong Kong or at a nearby hotel, repurposed for Covid-19.
During the 14-day quarantine, the arriving passenger is required to wear an electronic bracelet which connects to a smartphone app and tracks their whereabouts to ensure that they remain in isolation. Logistical hurdles of flying aside, people don’t buy a plane ticket for the pleasure of flying, they buy it as a means to an end. “They fly because they want to do something at the destination,” Doy says. And in any circumstance, he asks an important question: “Would you want to fly in an aircraft if somebody was coughing next to you?”
Alex Lee is a writer for WIRED. He tweets from @1AlexL
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