Europe Blindsided by U.S. Transatlantic Travel Ban

 - March 12, 2020, 3:28 PM
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons (BY) by European Parliament)

This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.

The Trump Administration's 30-day ban on passengers from 26 European countries in the passport-free Schengen travel area from entering the U.S. has taken the European Union institutions and the continent’s operators by surprise, leaving the latter with a new concern about how to adapt their schedules to a rapidly changing regulatory and demand environment in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak.

In a joint statement with the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen criticized the U.S.’s move. Stressing the global nature of the coronavirus crisis, she called for “cooperation rather than unilateral” action. “The European Union disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation,” the EU leaders said. Speaking at the Commission’s midday press conference on Thursday, a spokesman insisted officials of the EU executive council were not consulted about the decision by their U.S. counterparts. The EU, however, would not take quick reactionary measures, he noted. “The EU does not have the habit of shooting from the hips. Good policy requires reflection,” he said, adding that Brussels now is “looking at the text and analyzing the consequences.”

The proclamation of President Trump, suspending the entry of most non-U.S. nationals who have been in the Schengen area at any point during the 14 days prior to their scheduled arrival to the U.S., has prompted Finnair to halt flights to its three U.S. destinations. It will operate a last service to Los Angeles and New York on March 15 and March 19, respectively, to bring customers home. Its last service to Miami departed today.

Icelandair, which built its business model on connecting Europe and North America over its hub at Reykjavík–Keflavík airport, is scrapping service to Boston, Denver, Minneapolis, and Orlando during the ban, but will continue flying to New York, Chicago, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. The airline’s share price dropped 22 percent Thursday morning following the news of the U.S. ban.

Lufthansa Group is drastically reducing its flight offering but pledged it will continue operating flights from Frankfurt to Chicago and Newark, from Zurich to Chicago and Newark, from Vienna to Chicago, and from Brussels to Washington beyond March 14, “thus maintaining at least some air traffic connections” to the U.S. from Europe,” the company said. Lufthansa Group’s airlines offer 313 connections to 21 destinations in the U.S. from Europe in the winter schedule.

Air France plans to continue operations to Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York JFK, San Francisco, and Washington from March 14 to March 28, when the winter schedule ends. It pointed out it is “awaiting clarification from the U.S. authorities on the possibility to continue service to Miami, Boston, and Houston.” A spokeswoman for the Paris-based airline told AIN the proclamation “is a very difficult document to understand.” Air France’s winter schedule includes 121 weekly flights and 12 routes to the U.S. KLM also intends to maintain the network to destinations in the U.S. where passengers are screened “for the next two weeks, as long as possible,” though it will examine daily whether or not it needs to make adjustments to the network and what operational measures it needs to take. The U.S. market represents 15 percent of Air France-KLM group’s passenger revenues. Beyond March 28, Air France and KLM are working with their joint-venture partners, Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic, on “implementing a plan to continue service to the United States.”

A spokeswoman for IAG told AIN the group would not comment for the time being. British Airways and Aer Lingus will likely see less effect than sister airlines Iberia and Level because the UK and Ireland are not part of Schengen and their citizens are thus exempt from the ban, yet their U.S. services typically would carry a lot of connecting passengers from Schengen countries.

Norwegian Air Shuttle CEO Jacob Schram described the ban and the Covid-19 situation as “an unprecedented situation,” forcing the low-cost carrier to ground 40 percent of its long-haul fleet—it deploys Boeing 787s—and cancel up to 25 percent of its short-haul flights until the end of May. From March 13 to March 29, it will cancel the majority of its flights to the U.S. from Amsterdam, Madrid, Oslo, Stockholm, Barcelona, and Paris; from March 29 to the end of April, it will cancel all flights from those cities and Athens to the U.S. It plans to cancel all flights between Rome and the U.S. from March 13 to the end of May. In contrast, all routes between London Gatwick and the U.S. will continue to operate as normal, with the goal to reroute as many of its customers as possible through London. “The new restrictions imposed further pressure on an already difficult situation,” Schram asserted. “We urge international governments to act now to ensure that the aviation industry can protect jobs and continue to be a vital part of the global economic recovery.”

Governments must impose the measures they consider necessary to contain the virus, but they also “must be fully prepared to provide support to buffer the economic dislocation that this will cause,” asserted International Air Transport Association (IATA) director-general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac. The dimensions of the U.S.-Europe market are “enormous,” IATA noted. In 2019, airlines scheduled a total of around 200,000 flights between the U.S. and the Schengen Area, equivalent to around 550 flights per day. They carried around 46 million passengers, roughly equivalent to 125,000 travelers every day. 

The newly imposed Covid-19 travel restrictions in the U.S. and widespread flight cancellations across Europe also led Brussels-based trade group Airlines for Europe (A4E) to call for “immediate action” from European and national governments to reduce the economic impact of the crisis on the aviation sector. They include the confirmation and immediate implementation of the 80/20 airport slots waiver through the end of the summer season, the deferment or waiver of any new aviation taxes at the EU or national level, and clarity on Covid-19’s inclusion as an extraordinary circumstance under the EU air passenger rights regulation 261/2004. “We are now faced with another situation in which there are no formal rules to limit the financial liability of our airlines in case of extraordinary circumstances,” said A4E managing director Thomas Reynaert.