Europe's Airlines Barely Surviving, Recovery Hopes Fading

 - October 20, 2020, 6:43 AM
European Regions Airline Association director general Montserrat Barriga insists that her members face a struggle for survival due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo: ERAA)

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

European air transport leaders today called on governments to ensure a consistent and coordinated approach to implementing Covid-19 safety measures, and also to replace 14-day quarantine requirements with an effective process for testing passengers and crew. Addressing the Flight Safety Foundation’s International Air Safety Summit, they said the sector still faces a critical struggle for survival and that confusing variations in national policies continue to undermine plans agreed to by the European Commission (EC).

“We’re in a very complex environment with high political tensions as the EC tries to enforce leadership and [European] states continue to do their own thing with unilateral quarantines,” said Montserrat Barriga, director-general of the European Regions Airline Association (ERA). Along with Thomas Rynaert, managing director of the Airlines for Europe group and Eurocontrol director general Eamonn Brennan, she complained that the regulatory fragmentation has continued despite an October 13 decision by European Union (EU) governments to accept a European Council recommendation for a coordinated approach to cross-border travel restrictions.

Brennan described that decision as “a good first step.” But he acknowledged that airlines and airports are not satisfied and fear that confusing and fast-changing restrictions will continue to deter passengers from traveling. “They are not happy because the agreement doesn’t go far enough,” he told the summit. “It’s a typical European decision that recommends and advises. The industry wanted a strong role for the EC, quicker change, and with a stronger emphasis for states to make changes. We’re very disappointed by the reaction of some [national] governments because they are not seeing that [the main Covid risk] is from community transmission [within countries]. They still see aviation as the enemy, and you see the same thing in the U.S.”

Eurocontrol now sees no prospect of a recovery in the European air transport sector until 2024 or 2025. Brennan said that on September 14 the air traffic management agency had revised downward its traffic forecasts to an expectation of a 57 percent drop for the remainder of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.

Both ERA and Airlines For Europe reported that traffic levels and load factors had started to improve slightly in the early weeks of the summer season, before European states began imposing unilateral restrictions at short notice in a way that undermined consumer confidence. “And just one day after the European Council decided to take a coordinated approach to opening borders, national governments decided to do things differently and so we had a patchwork of national travel restrictions,” said Rynaert.

The airline groups concurred with Eurocontrol in demanding a coordinated and harmonized approach to replacing quarantines with effective Covid testing to boost passenger confidence before a vaccine is universally available, which Brennan said isn’t expected before the fourth quarter of 2021. They complained that a lack of political leadership in Europe is stopping progress that could be achieved in light of the agreement over the next steps between EASA and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

“Some politicians are just not taking this seriously,” Rynaert complained. “The crisis is having a much wider impact than just on the aviation sector. It’s hitting tourism and local economies hard, and yet some politicians just don’t seem to get that. Our main problems are political and social issues, not technical issues.”

Barriga warned that the situation could get even worse before it starts getting better. She reported that several ERA member airlines are “in pre-receivership situations,” meaning that they are in serious threat of going bankrupt. “Some are waiting for new capital injections, but investors are very cautious because they don’t think recovery is around the corner,” she said.