Spanish carrier Volotea and Luxembourg operator Luxair are the latest two European carriers to temporarily halt all flights in response to the coronavirus crisis.

European carriers have over the past week been announcing increasingly large cuts to their services, as country’s tighten their border controls. A number have called a halt to flights altogether for the coming weeks - or will just operate a few flights to accomodate returning nationals.

Volotea has announced the temporary grounding of its entire fleet until at least 8 April, sending home 1,100 of its employees in Spain, France and Italy over this period. The Spanish airline says the grounding of its fleet of 19 Airbus A319s and 14 Boeing 717s jets is a consequence of both the collapse of demand for air transport amid the coronavirus outbreak and the national curfews and regulations limiting air traffic

Luxair will call halt to its operations from 23 March. The group says Luxair flights will restart on 20 April, while LuxairTours operations are slated to resume on 1 May.

European carriers received one bit of welcome news when European transport ministers today approved plans to suspend ‘use it or lose it’ slot rules for the full summer season running until 24 October. European Commission proposals initially were to suspend the regulations until the end of June.

European carriers to announce full or virtual flight suspensions
CarrierCountryPlanned flight suspension
LOT Polish  Poland 15-28 March (international flights)
Czech Airlines Czech Republic        16 March - 11 April
SAS Sweden 16 March until further notice (excludes some flights returning passengers)
Air Baltic Latvia 17 March -14 April
Lauda Austria 17 March - 8 April
TUI Airlines UK 17 March -16 April
Air Moldova Moldova 17 March - April
La Compagnie France 18 March -12 April
Air Dolomiti Italy 18 March -19 April
Austrian Airlines Austria 19 March until further notice
Volotea Spain 19 March until 8 April
Air Malta Malta 20 March until further notice
Brussels Airlines Belgium 21 March -20 April
Transavia France France 21 March - 19 April
Transavia Airlines      Netherlands 23 March - 5 April
Jet2 UK Flying suspended until 1 May
Luxair Luxembourgh 23 March - 20 April
Ryanair Ireland 24 March - expects most if not all flights to be grounded
Source: FlightGlobal based on airline announcements

How European carriers lurched into crisis-mode

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 subsequently followed that have made clear the scale of the impact on European airlines. These actions spell out that a majority of European airline capacity will be grounded over the rest of March and April. Already 15 European carriers have halted – or announced their plan to top - regular flights on a temporary basis. Europe’s biggest passenger carrier, Ryanair, expects to cancel “most, if not all” its flights by 24 March. 

Snapshot: European airline action announcements

  • Ryanair has cut 80% of its scheduled flights until 24 March and expects “most if not all of Ryanair Group flights will be grounded” with the exception of a few key routes, mostly between the UK and Ireland.
  • Lufthansa Group is reducing capacity to just 5% of its original plan and will park approximately 700 of its 763 aircraft. Lufthansa units Brussels Airlines, Austrian Airlines and Air Dolomiti have already declared that they are suspending operations. The group says Lufthansa itself will discontinue long-haul flying from Munich, leaving long-haul flights only from Frankfurt.
  • 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%. Its French and Dutch Transavia leisure units are suspending flights.
  • 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.
  • Norwegian says it will be cancelling 85% of its flights and temporarily lay off 90% of its workforce – around 7,300 members of staff.
  • UK holiday carriers TUI and Jet 2 have both suspended flying operations• 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”. 
  • 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 17 May following the closing of Latvian borders to foreign 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.

While European carriers received some welcome respite in the form of European Commission proposals to alleviate the existing “use it or lose it” slot rules until the end of June, airline bodies called for the relaxation to apply for the full summer season until the end of October.

They were also dismayed that a request that airlines be allowed to offer rebooking or vouchers instead of cash refunds for flights cancelled because of the pandemic was not accepted. “In case of cancellations, the transport provider must reimburse or re-route the passengers,” the Commission states in its guidelines of 18 March.

IATA’s regional vice-president for Europe, Rafael Schvartzman, accused the Commission of underestimating the crisis facing airlines.

“Faced with a cash flow catastrophe, many airlines can only offer vouchers in lieu of immediate cash refunds for cancelled flights,” argues Schvartzman. “The Commission needs to understand that fiddling at the edges will not keep airlines in any shape to get the economy moving again when the health crisis abates.

“This is not a short-term issue – air connectivity will not be back to normal for many months. And for some airlines, things will never be the same again.” 

Likewise European Regional Airlines Association director general Montserrat Barriga – while welcoming that a need for a substantial package for the aviation sector “was not overlooked” – hit out at the lack of “clear and timely decisions” from European transport ministers in alleviating the pressures on the aviation industry.

“Despite many European airlines already facing enormous financial pressures, the lack of concrete action taken by the European Commission has proven they have ignored the vital urgency of mitigating the effects of this crisis,” she says. “Action is needed now if the industry is to survive this catastrophic situation that is likely to change the future of air transport in Europe forever.”