From the moment the World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on 13 March stated that Europe was now the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, further significant cuts to air travel in the region seemed an inevitability.

The drastic action that has since been taken by a series of European governments to slow down the spread of the virus has seen an increasing numbers borders, be it through soft or hard measures, closed to international travel. 

A slew of drastic airline announcements this morning have made clear the scale of the impact on European airlines. These warnings spell out that a majority of European airline capacity will be grounded over the rest of March and April. More carriers seem likely to follow the likes of Air Baltic and La Compagnie in temporarily suspending operations completely.

Snapshot: European airline action announcements

  • Air France is to ground its Airbus A380s and its Dutch sibling carrier KLM its full Boeing 747 fleet as part of wider capacity cuts the group expects will result in potential reduction in its ASK capacity of between 70% and 90%.
  • British Airways and Iberia parent IAG’s management team is to remain in place for the time being, to help steer the company through the coronavirus crisis, as it prepares to cut capacity by 75% for April and May.
  • Ryanair expects to park the majority of its fleet over the next week to 10 days as the impact of the coronavirus escalates, and could suspend all of its services for April and May.
  • EasyJet has warned that the impact of the coronavirus may force it to ground “the majority” of its fleet and threatens the viability of the aviation industry in Europe.
  • Norwegian says it will be cancelling 85% of its flights and temporarily lay off 90% of its workforce – around 7,300 members of staff.
  • Austrian Airlines says that from 18 March, ”regular flights will be removed from the flight schedule until further notice” as it grounds all commercial operations.
  • TUI says it is halting the “vast majority” of its package travel, cruise and hotel activities to assist with the efforts to counter the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Virgin Atlantic is to park 75% its fleet from 26 March, rising to up to 85% for points in April.
  • Finnair has followed neighbouring Nordic carrier SAS in making dramatic operational cuts, slashing 90% of its normal capacity from the beginning of April.
  • Scandinavian operator SAS is to suspend most of its operations, after declaring the demand for international air travel to be “essentially non-existent”. It will temporarily reduce its workforce by 90% – some 10,000 personnel – while the crisis situation persists.
  • Polish flag-carrier LOT is suspending all international flights from both Poland and Hungary until 28 March after the Polish government imposed border restrictions on foreign travellers.
  • Air Baltic is suspending all flights from tomorrow following the closing of Latvian borders to foriegn travel.

The scale of these cuts marks a further step-change in the action – and circumstances – facing European airlines. This has seen capacity cuts deepen from those targeted at specific markets – initially mainland China, broadening to other parts of Asia, then northern Italy and into the wider European short-haul market. 

A further catalyst for action was the 12 March announcement from US president Donald Trump of restrictions on travellers to the country from continental Europe, before more European countries began closing their own borders – necessitating deeper cuts from airlines.

Against this backdrop Europe’s carriers have taken drastic action to ground aircraft and many are calling for governments to provide support to ensure they can survive the crisis. 

UK leisure group TUI is applying for state-aid guarantees to support its business until it can restore normal operations, after suspending most of its travel operations. “We have decided to apply for state aid guarantees to support the business until normal operations are resumed,” it says.

In issuing its latest guidance today, Air France-KLM estimates the drop in revenues from its passenger business resulting from its reduced capacity will only be offset by around a 50% by the drop in variable costs before cost-savings measures.

“In this extremely difficult context, the Air France-KLM Group has welcomed the statements made by the French and Dutch governments, which have each indicated that they were studying all possible means to support the group,” it says.

Virgin Atlantic, in outlining its capacity reductions, also called for the Government to provide ”clear, decisive and unwavering support” for the UK aviation sector. That includes emergency credit facilities to a value of £5-7.5 billion ($6.1-9.2 billion), ”to bolster confidence in the industry, and to prevent credit card processors from withholding customer payments”.

It also urges the alleviation in existing use-it-or-lose-it slot rules for the whole summer season. The European Commission has formally proposed the suspending of these rules until the end of June.

While that move has been welcomed by IATA – which has been urging such steps – it too has called for the measures to apply for the whole summer season.

“The Commission’s decision to suspend slot use rules until June means that airlines can make these critical decisions immediately – without worrying about the impact on future availability of slots,” says IATA’s regional vice-president for Europe, Rafael Schvartzman. ”This is much needed and most welcome. However, given all the uncertainties, it is disappointing that the decision does not cover the full season.

”Airlines are implementing emergency measures under severe cashflow conditions. Along with relaxing slot rules, governments must also consider other forms of emergency relief,” says Schvartzman.