As the UK pauses to mark the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day (VE Day), there are more signs of what the future of aviation may look like once lockdown measures are lifted across the continent.
A number of airlines have confirmed their intent to reshape and resize their operations.
In an email to its FlyingClub members, Virgin Atlantic’s CEO, Shai Weiss, confirmed that along with job losses, its fleet would consist solely of 36 two-engine aircraft, as all of its seven 747-400s and four A330-200 aircraft would retire as planned in early 2022.
He also announced that preparations to relaunch passenger services are well underway including additional cleanliness and health measures onboard as well as at the airport, to protect its people and customers in line with expert advice.
Over in Germany during its first-ever ‘virtual’ AGM, Lufthansa Chairman and CEO, Carsten Spohr, admitted that “We are fighting for the future of this company,” revealing that “at the moment, we are only flying about 3,000 passengers a day”.
“In terms of flight schedule, our company has gone back in time to where it started in 1955 – a decade after the Second World War and following a 10-year ban on flights.
“For 65 years – and through many crises – we built this company on the foundations of our forefathers, turning Lufthansa into the no. 1 in Europe and an airline that has been among the best in the world for many years,” he continued. “In less than 65 days, we have returned to the flight plan levels of 65 years ago. That is extremely bitter, devastating and painful.”
As part of a recovery phase, future, Lufthansa is planning a significantly smaller Lufthansa Group.
Spohr added: “We already decided on the first steps in this direction in April. All of the airlines in the Lufthansa Group will be downsized. Older, less environmentally friendly aircraft will be phased out of the fleet earlier than originally planned. The A340-600 fleet will be temporarily decommissioned, as well as six Airbus A380 and five Boeing 747-400. Ten Airbus A320 will be removed from Eurowings fleet.” [Lufthansa itself will reduce the size of its fleet by about 100 aircraft].
“The ongoing restructuring programmes at Austrian Airlines and Brussels Airlines will be intensified. Both airlines will also reduce the size of their fleet within this context. Germanwings flight operations will be terminated two years earlier than planned. In the future, we will be flying with a maximum of 10 airlines.”
While many airlines are leaving the middle seat empty to comply with social distancing measures, IATA has publicly rejected the initiative.
“IATA does not support mandating social distancing measures that would leave ‘middle seats’ empty,” it said in a press release.
Even if mandated, keeping the ‘middle seat’ open will not achieve the recommended separation for social distancing to be effective. Most authorities recommend 1m-2m while the average seat width is less than 50 cm.
“The cabin environment naturally makes transmission of viruses difficult for a variety of reasons. That helps explain why we have seen little occurrence of onboard transmission. In the immediate term, our aim is to make the cabin environment even safer with effective measures so that passengers and crew can return to travel with confidence. Screening, face coverings and masks are among the many layers of measures that we are recommending. Leaving the middle seat empty, however, is not,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.
Calls for social distancing measures on aircraft would fundamentally shift the economics of aviation by slashing the maximum load factor to 62%. That is well below the average industry breakeven load factor of 77%.
With fewer seats to sell, unit costs would rise sharply. Compared to 2019, air fares would need to go up dramatically – between 43% and 54% depending on the region – just to cover costs. “Airlines are fighting for their survival. Eliminating the middle seat will raise costs. If that can be offset with higher fares, the era of affordable travel will come to an end. On the other hand, if airlines can’t recoup the costs in higher fares, airlines will go bust. Neither is a good option when the world will need strong connectivity to help kick-start the recovery from COVID-19’s economic devastation,” said de Juniac.
It seems that medical advice and economics will make unhappy bedfellows for some time to come.