The effort to save Europe’s travel industry has devolved into an increasingly desperate race against the clock.
With June just one week away, there’s little time left to ignite the summer travel boom that airlines, hotels and tourist-dependent economies are counting on to reverse a year-long booking drought. Yet borders are opening slowly, prompting a furious lobbying campaign to persuade health authorities that flying is safe.
The most intense action involves the U.K.’s green list of countries to which travel is allowed without quarantine upon return. In the first week of June, the government is due to update its traffic-light system established on May 7, and airlines and governments alike want it to be rapidly expanded.
Greece and Spain have lobbied hard to move up from amber to join Portugal, now alone among significant green-listed destinations. The United Arab Emirates, home to long-distance hubs in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, wants off of the red list, where it sits despite relatively low infection rates. Airlines stand ready to transport Brits to Mykonos, the Costa Brava and other destinations both east and west.
“I don’t think the U.K. aviation industry can go through another lost summer without grave consequences,” EasyJet Plc Chief Executive Officer Johan Lundgren said today at a press conference hosted by lobby group Airlines U.K. Should official restrictions make it impossible to operate this summer, “the government needs to be ready and prepared to step up to protect this industry,” he said.
Lundgren and others argue that the U.K.’s rapid vaccine rollout has provided enough protection to open up at a faster pace, and allow vaccinated people to travel freely, as the European Union is preparing to do next month.
Yet the government, battling a surge of Covid-19 cases caused by a variant first detected in India, has remained cautious. Germany shut its doors to British leisure travelers, citing the dangers of the fast-spreading strain, while France today said it would stiffen a quarantine requirement, amplifying the risk of further setbacks.
“It’s clearly very disappointing,” Willie Walsh, the director general of the International Air Transport Association, said in a briefing in response to the French move. “We’re seeing political reaction not to data but to anecdote.”
Some determined travelers, meanwhile, are forging ahead to amber-listed destinations despite a required 10 days of self-quarantine on return. Walsh said he sees no issues with doing that. There’s hope in the industry that people who have saved money and vacation days will give the late-starting summer some staying power into the fall shoulder season of September and October.
“I’m still optimistic that we’ll see a good recovery in the second half of this year,” Walsh said. “We’re heading in the right direction.”
What’s Happening in Air Travel This Week
Globally, the rebound in airline capacity slipped one percentage point in the past week to 57% of 2019 levels, based on Bloomberg’s weekly flight tracker, which uses OAG data to monitor the pulse of the comeback.
The U.S., which has posted steady gains over the past several weeks, took a breather and is now back below 75% of pre-crisis capacity. Nevertheless, airlines are becoming increasingly optimistic, with Delta Air Lines Inc. saying its recovery is progressing faster than it expected, United Airlines Holdings Inc. bullish on fares, and American Airlines Group Inc. predicting a rebound in long distance business travel.
The trans-Atlantic market is cracking open a bit, with some European countries allowing vaccinated Americans to enter. But the lucrative niche, important for the big three American carriers along with British Airways, Deutsche Lufthansa AG and Air France-KLM in Europe, won’t come back until Europeans can travel to the U.S.
While optimism is increasing, “airlines need to be able to sell from both ends of the route and not purely rely on the North American demand,” said John Grant, chief analyst at OAG. There’s a chance that the U.S. makes the U.K. green list when it’s updated, but there’s little sign President Joe Biden is ready to lighten entry restrictions for foreign travelers.
Declines in Asia, Africa and the Middle East weighed on the totals, as countries clamped down to prevent the spread of new variants. Countries continue to limit ties to India, where the health system remains under enormous strain. In Japan, a rise in coronavirus cases led the U.S. to issue a “do not travel” advisory, sowing doubt over whether the Olympic Games can be held as scheduled in July.
In Europe, the flight schedules are deteriorating slightly. In the past week, airlines in the region have trimmed back their schedules for the coming month by about 4%, according to data from Bloomberg NEF. Tour operator TUI AG canceled holidays to a number of amber- and red-listed countries, including Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, Mexico and Bulgaria through June 27.
Travel to Eastern Europe is set to get more difficult after European and U.K. aviation authorities told airlines to avoid the airspace of Belarus. The moves came in response to the regime’s diversion of a Ryanair Holdings Plc passenger flight to its capital, Minsk, where authorities arrested a dissident Belarusian journalist aboard.
Governments from Europe to the U.S. have largely condemned the action and dismissed the purported bomb threat that triggered the incident as a ruse. Until now, Belarus was one of the shining lights of a travel comeback in central and eastern Europe.