Airline booking times have “collapsed” and passengers are increasingly buying tickets at the last minute amid uncertainties over changing Covid-19 travel restrictions, making it difficult for carriers to predict how full their flights will be, panellists observed during the Airlines 2050 conference today.

Loganair chief executive Jonathan Hinkles says the “booking time window has collapsed to very short notice”: passengers are now booking flights with six days’ notice as opposed to six weeks as was previously the trend.

Hinkles adds that “one of the biggest fear factors” for passengers when booking air travel is whether their travel plans will be disrupted.

Andreas Koster, Lufthansa Group’s senior director of sales for the UK, Ireland and Iceland, agrees that “demand is pretty much short-term”, meaning that “we only see when it’s too late” how full each flight will be when it departs.

“At the moment there is a clear trend for short-term booking,” adds Koster, although he suspects that this will change “if there is more clarity on the quarantine situation”.

The introduction of “public health corridors” is crucial to bringing back demand for international air travel, in the view of Rhett Workman, American Airlines’ managing director for Europe and Asia-Pacific.

He describes the coronavirus pandemic as “a great equaliser” for the airline sector, pointing out that American was one of the biggest carriers in the world last year but it now “feels like we’re a $2-3 billion start-up business”. He says American is currently “an 86% US domestic airline” and that the few transatlantic flights being operated are less than half full.

Airlines are beginning to look beyond day-to-day crisis management to the months ahead, according to David Huttner of PA Consulting. However, he warns that assuming things will return to normal is unrealistic.

“Although we may hit 2019 passenger numbers at some point… to believe that we can act like this never happened is not reality,” argues Huttner. He says that if airlines “simply think the goal is to get back” to the way things were before the pandemic, they are “naive” and have their “heads in the sand” because “you can’t assume the profile of customers and the profile mix” will return.

Loganair’s Hinkles has harsh words for the UK government, labelling its response to helping the country’s aviation industry as “far too slow and far too faltering”. While he thinks the government’s ambition for UK aviation to be carbon neutral by 2050 is “great”, Hinkles says “there’s a risk of having a carbon-neutral industry by 2021” without government support.

“There’s a limited time this government has to make a difference, and that’s days rather than months,” he warns.

Launched last year, Airlines 2050 is hosted by FlightGlobal in partnership with Airlines UK, BAR UK and IATA.