The fast-moving nature of the coronavirus crisis has created a curious situation where talk of airlines being on the brink of collapse is happening alongside discussions of how operations might be restarted in the coming weeks.
The danger for the industry is that the latter topic drowns out the former, because for every glimmer of hope, there are many more uncertainties and looming downsides that must be lived through and tackled first.
The simple fact is that beyond the now widely accepted view that the airline industry will emerge from this crisis as a much smaller concern – already reflected in mass layoffs, early retirements of aircraft, cancelled orders and businesses collapsing or on the brink – no one knows how the next few months will play out.
In considering the restart of their economies, countries across the world are assessing how to square the circle of scientists warning that a vaccine might be the only way to return to “normality”, while economists cite a generation’s worth of financial damage if lockdowns endure for too long.
What matters most to the airline industry – beyond having access to state aid in various forms for as long as necessary – is that the decisions made by governments to kick-start their economies are sustainable.
Otherwise, on the more pessimistic end of potential scenarios, a misjudged lifting of restrictions might lead to an unmanageable increase in cases of the virus. Harsh lockdowns could be re-imposed in certain countries for weeks or months, and international travel would be impossible for longer – and highly undesirable anyway. In such a scenario, the catastrophic state of the world economy could make the fortunes of airlines an afterthought for most governments.
Towards the more optimistic end of the spectrum – and this is where IATA’s still-painful mid-April forecast probably sits – the second quarter might see the vast majority of airline operations grounded, with a slow recovery building from July onwards towards a significant economic bounceback some time in 2021.
Even then, the recovery in air travel would be taking place amid an economic downturn worse than that brought about by the 2008 global economic crisis.
As many people have pointed out, there are few “good answers” at the moment, only “less-bad” ones.
Wherever the next few months sit on the spectrum of potential outcomes, individual airlines will need to pull many levers to survive.
Some will have more options than others – notably those in countries where the government is willing to provide financial assistance – but all will need to be canny in balancing cash preservation today with an ability to restart operations quickly when the lifting of restrictions allows.
In simple terms, this is arguably nothing new; airlines have always needed the right combination of strategy and luck to emerge from crises.
But today the equation is being applied to a situation that trumps any seen for decades in terms of its seriousness. For the airline industry, there has truly never been so much at stake.