Covid-19: No more “normal” for aviation in future, after the world experiences the pandemic
The airlines have suffered, as have many other sectors of the economy, a dramatic decline due to Covid-19. They are hoping to be given generous loans and finance through governments, to help them deal with the crisis – though they are no more deserving than others. (It was the airlines that spread, inadvertently, the disease so fast, across the world). The airline sector used to be seen as special, glamorous and something praiseworthy. It seems that nowadays flying has become so commonplace, and such an unpleasant experience, that it no longer sits on that pedestal of public warmth and admiration. There is little public support for bailing out an industry that does not much environmental harm, especially when it has given large pay-outs to its financial backers over the years. The industry is facing a very uncertain future. The crisis is not just a temporary one, that might resolve in a few months. Covid-19 has seen an astounding rise in video-conferencing, (Zoom etc) that is likely to change for ever our perception of the need for air travel. And it may have caused long term anxieties about the global spread of disease. Many airlines are likely to collapse. Flying may look very different, and be more expensive, in a few years time.
Frequent flyer: how we fell out of love with the airlines
Once a source of national pride, the industry’s current crisis elicits little sympathy
By MICHAEL SKAPINKER (Financial Times)
APRIL 6 2020 Opinion Business travel
In 1991, the FT reported on a crowd of youths near a New York subway punching the air and chanting, “Pan Am! Pan Am!” What did this outpouring mean? My then colleague Nikki Tait explained that a court hearing nearby had just given the struggling airline temporary permission to continue operating.
It didn’t help. The airline collapsed later that year. But what the chanting group was expressing was a sense that Pan Am had once represented “all that was modern, prosperous and confident about the US”.
Airlines once soared in nations’ self-perceptions. People were proud of them. When British Airways in the 1990s, newly privatised and spruced up, called itself “the world’s favourite airline”, no one scoffed. Aviation’s buccaneers — Freddie Laker, Herb Kelleher, Richard Branson — were folk heroes.
Today, as the world’s airlines face their biggest crisis since the second world war, it is striking how little sympathy they evoke. Southwest Airlines, which Kelleher co-founded, still prompts some affection, but few US travellers show any love for the other carriers.
Any mention of BA in this column elicits raucous customer contempt in the comments section. And when Virgin Atlantic, which Richard Branson founded, begged last month for state aid to survive, the UK government’s response that it should look elsewhere for money first prompted little concern outside the industry.
That is, in a sense, natural. People are having a torrid time during this coronavirus crisis. Many businesses will not survive. But while the disappearance of favourite retailers, restaurants and hotels will prompt fond memories, I doubt the collapse of many airlines will evoke the same response. No one will be chanting their names.
Why did we fall out of love with airlines?
The immediate answer is that many people see them as prime climate villains. Although aircraft are responsible for no more than 5% of damaging emissions, they attract greater criticism than SUVs, partly because there is little medium-term prospect of long-haul planes going electric.
But there are other reasons. The deregulation of the industry in the US in 1978 and in Europe in the 1990s saw the founding of new airlines and the privatisation of older ones. Until then, most countries had a national airline. People weren’t always impressed with them and had fun with their names. Belgium’s Sabena stood for “such a bloody experience never again”, Israel’s El Al was “every landing always late”, and BOAC, one of BA’s pre-privatisation predecessors, was “better on a camel”. Still, each nation thought, whatever its faults, it’s our airline.
In many cases, it no longer is. Some national carriers, such as Sabena, have disappeared. The French government has vowed to ensure Air France’s survival, but these days it’s a transnational group called Air France-KLM. BA is part of International Airlines Group, a Spanish-registered company.
Another reason for disenchantment with airlines is disenchantment with flying. Look at the atrocious conditions we fly in now. Economy seats are cramped: the distance between them has been cut by 4-7 inches, according to the Flyers Rights campaign group. At 17-18 inches in width, they are narrower than about half of male passengers.
The final reason no one cares much for airlines any more is that flying, before this shutdown, had become routine. In 1998, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization, just under 1.5bn passengers flew. In 2018, the figure was 4.3bn. It’s hard to be romantic about something so commonplace.
In that difficult-to-imagine future when we’re once again allowed to travel where we wish, will we appreciate airlines more? That depends on how many of them survive. We may be in for a dramatic consolidation of the industry, with fewer carriers, higher prices and a return to the days when flying was something special.
Follow Michael on Twitter @Skapinker
or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
COVID-19: No more ‘normal’ for aviation
At first, COVID-19 looked like previous crises: a hit to traffic and revenue followed by a return to normal, even if there was uncertainty about the depth and duration of the hit.
The revenue reduction faced by airlines this year as a result of COVID-19 far exceeds the impact from previous crises. It has the dimensions of a world war. Furthermore, a global recession is now coming in 2020/21 and this means that a recovery will take longer.
Moreover, even after recovery, ‘normal’ will not be the same as before. There are likely to be lasting impacts on demand for air travel. As a result of lockdowns, or near lockdowns, across the planet, people are fast learning new ways to live their lives, both at work and at leisure.
More than ever before, technology is now a more realistic and more widely used substitute instead of business travel by air. Even after COVID-19 has passed, aviation may also face a residual loss of confidence from passengers over travel, for fear of close contact with others.
In addition, the crisis may give an additional push to environmental campaigns against aviation.