The last time I put on the polyester and set foot on board an aircraft was back on 12th March. If someone had told me that day that our beloved aviation industry would be in the situation it’s in now I probably would have told you to Foxtrot Oscar!
Yet here we are. Our planes have been parked, our airports deserted, our wings clipped. Furloughed, unpaid leave, grounded. Some of us have taken up second jobs to pay the bills while we wait for the skies to reopen. Some have began volunteering for the NHS or gone back to nursing or care assistant roles. Some of us still put on our uniforms, but rather than go to airports and serve passengers, we go to hospitals and serve exhausted nurses, doctors, porters and all the other healthcare heroes, with the amazing Project Wingman (which you can still sign up for!)
So what exactly is going on in our beloved industry?
We’re here to separate some of the facts from the social media fiction.
WHAT WE KNOW SO FAR
There’s no denying that for every airline around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is the greatest crisis ever to face the aviation industry. The last time we saw such devastation in the airline world was following 9/11, with some even labelling the pandemic as ‘the new terrorism’.
In the UK British Airways, owned by International Airlines Group (IAG), announced plans to cut 12,000 of its workforce, remove its ‘Worldwide’ and ‘Euro’ fleets and combine all crew on a new zero-hour ‘mixed-fleet’ contract. In a further blow the carrier also said that they may not re-open its Gatwick operation. These plans have unsurprisingly caused uproar amongst the airlines crew and unions after BA had earlier refused support from the UK government and all this, after making a £1.9bn profit in 2019.
Subsidiary British Airways CityFlyer has formally notified unions of the potential for redundancies as it plans to “rejig” its operation, notably its Edinburgh base. Willie Walsh said that London City, CityFlyer’s main operating base, has been facing particular difficulties during the crisis. “I think [the shutdown] clearly points to the specific customer segment that supports London City,” Walsh explained. “And I think that airport is one that will be challenged greatly as we go through this, and as we come out of this.”
Fellow IAG carrier Aer Lingus is consulting with unions regarding the cutting of 900 jobs from across its workforce, although It is understood that these cuts will be via a voluntary redundancy scheme.
At IAG’s Spanish businesses Iberia and Vueling, bosses announced the securing of over €1bn in loans, guaranteed by the Spanish state bank. Iberia will receive $750m and Vueling $260m to see them through the coronavirus crisis.
Meanwhile BA’s arch-rival Virgin Atlantic said that they would be cutting more than 3,000 jobs in the UK and temporarily ending its 36-year tenure at Gatwick Airport until customer demand returns. In a statement the airline said it would be reducing its fleet from 45 to 35 by summer 2022 and has brought forward the retirement of its Boeing 747 fleet. Virgin bosses remain in frantic talks with the UK government to secure a £500m rescue deal which would enable Richard Branson’s flagship company to survive the pandemic. Branson has also agreed to sell $500m in Virgin Galactic shares in order to prop up his beloved airline and leisure interests.
easyJet has furloughed its UK cabin crew and pilots after grounding their entire fleet back in March. It’s staff based across Europe are on similar job retention schemes from each countries respective government. The airline has also received a £600m loan from the UK Treasury to offset some of the economic shock from the virus.
Ryanair plans to axe 3,000 workers and will ask those that remain to take a 20% pay cut. O’Leary said that the move was “The minimum that we need just to survive the next 12 months.”
Jet2 and TUI pilots and cabin crew have all been furloughed with much uncertainty as to when they may return to the skies, although bosses at TUI have recently announced the shedding of 8,000 jobs across its workforce. How many of these will affect its pilot and cabin crew community is unclear.
Loganair and Eastern Airways have furloughed the majority of its crews, retaining a small number to operate the limited essential flights they are still offering.
Europe’s third largest low-cost carrier Norwegian has cancelled the majority of its flights and temporarily layed off 7,300 employees as the already struggling carrier fights for survival. Norway’s government has offered a lifeline, a 3bn kroner aid package to tide it through months of grounded planes, but this is dependent on the airline effectively making itself solvent again by wiping out debt.
Lufthansa, has said that it will be left with 10,000 excess staff as it reduces in size to cope with the crisis. The airline has currently furloughed almost 90,000 of its 135,000 staff and announced several cost-saving measures, including plans to axe its Cologne-based Germanwings brand and shrink its Eurowings division. The airline is still considering receiving state support.
The Air France-KLM Group will be receiving state aid from their respective governments. For Air France the package includes a €4bn state-backed bank loan and €3bn in direct loans and is aimed at protecting 350,000 jobs. Meanwhile the Dutch government said that it would provide between €2bn and €4bn euros in state aid to KLM.
Meanwhile, beleaguered Italian flag carrier Alitalia will receive a €3bn cash injection from the Italian government. The airline is currently in the process of being nationalised after the COVID-19 pandemic meant a buyer for the business could not be found.
Wizzair is cutting 1,000 of its staff despite resuming operations from its London Luton base on May 1. It is making every passenger wear a face mask, hand sanitiser is offered, some seats are purposely left empty, there’s no inflight magazines and no food is served.
Polish national airline LOT is working on a rescue plan and will likely need state aid as air traffic has been suspended because of the coronavirus, Jacek Sasin, the country’s minister of state assets said.
In a letter to its employees, Qatar Airways boss Akbar Al Baker warned of substantial redundancies as it plans to reduce its fleet by 25% and stated the airline needed to “Act decisively to protect the future of the business,” although how many jobs are under threat remains unclear. The Qatari carrier has also said that it plans to rehire its employees which are made redundant once restrictions are eased.
And Emirates will introduce rapid COVID-19 blood tests prior to boarding at Dubai, saying the test produces results within 10 minutes. The carrier was forced to suspend all regular passenger services on March 25 and doesn’t expect to return to the skies until at least July. The carriers chairman later said that they will continue to take “aggressive cost management measures” to safeguard the future of the business.
In the US the travel industry has almost collapsed as a result of Coronavirus. Passenger traffic is down about 94% and airlines are cutting hundred of thousands of flights. Half of the industry’s 6,215 planes are parked at major airports and desert airstrips.
As part of the US Senate’s $2trn coronavirus stimulus package, the airline industry will receive some $50bn in bailout funds. Half of that money will be given in direct grants in return for airlines agreeing to not put employees on involuntary furloughs, the rest will be available for loan guarantees.
However it seems likely that job cuts are inevitable as the major carries estimate they are losing $350 million to $400 million a day as expenses like payroll, rent and aircraft maintenance far exceed the money they bring in.
Southwest’s chief executive, Gary Kelly, last month warned employees that if a dramatic rebound doesn’t materialise by July, the airline could shrink. It wasn’t a prediction, he said in a recorded message, but a recognition that the timing of the recovery is out of the company’s hands. “Our goal is to thrive,” he said. “The imperative here is to survive.”
American Airlines, the worlds biggest airline, has agreed for 4,800 pilots to take short-term leave, while over 700 others will opt for early retirement. Its flight attendants will be provided with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) after it was revealed that over 100 of its crew have now caught the virus.
And a union representing United Airlines crew has told its members to delay non-essential luxury purchases and start sorting out their personal finances as the threat of mass lay-offs looms. “It should be clear by now that our airline faces serious challenges and that each of us, by our association with our airline, are facing a similar set of dire circumstances,” a recent leaked memo explained. It continued “We’ve asked that you focus your attention on getting your personal finances in order and that you exercise caution in all of your financial decision making during the short summer months ahead.” Around 20,000 staff have agreed to take unpaid leave and the airline plans to unveil details of a voluntary redundancy scheme at the end of May in a last ditch attempt to reduce its payroll.
In more positive news JetBlue, who was looking to enter the transatlantic market in 2020 announced that they intend to push ahead with the launch of their new London services. CEO Robin Hayes said the coronavirus crisis will push back the launch although he didn’t specify for how long. “The market will recover at some point,” Hayes said. “And I think that the need for us to enter that market and bring more competition is still as relevant in the future as it was in the past.”
Air Canada recently said that it plans to lay off at least 20,000 employees due to the COVID-19 pandemic after reducing its scheduled flights by 95% with no sign of recovery any time soon. The airline said in a statement, “We took the extremely difficult decision today to significantly downsize our operation to align with forecasts, which regrettably means reducing our workforce by 50 to 60 per cent.” The plans will come into effect on June 7.
Meanwhile Colombia’s national airline Avianca the second largest in Latin America and the second oldest airline in the world has filed for bankruptcy protection in a US court, after the pandemic cut more than 80% of its income. More than 140 of its aircraft have been grounded since Colombian President Ivan Duque closed the country’s airspace in March. Most of its 20,000 employees have been put on unpaid leave.
Cathay Pacific, who have been struggling financially for some time following the riots in Hong Kong is performing a ‘structural review’ of their airline which apparently could involve “A combination of fewer staff, planes, routes and brands under the airline group.”
And Singapore Airlines recently said they are to cancel the majority of their flights until the end of June. Out of the 200 aircraft only about 10 are now in operation to serve a limited passenger network. Singapore Airlines also had 15 staff test positive for coronavirus between March and April, with 9 fully recovered, according to the Straits Times.
In Australia Qantas has put 20,000 staff on leave and placed their ‘Project Sunrise’ – the plan to open nonstop services to the Australian east coast from New York and London on hold. “We do think there is a huge potential for Project Sunrise but the time is not right now given the impact that Covid-19 has had on world travel,” chief executive Alan Joyce said at a media webinar on 5 May.
Virgin Australia confirmed in April that they would enter voluntary administration with the airline seeking new buyers and investors after failing to get a loan from the Australian government. The Brisbane-based carrier hopes to “Emerge stronger on the other side of this crisis.” For now it plans to continue operating all scheduled flights, “Which are helping to transport essential workers, maintain important freight corridors, and return Australians home,” the airline said in a filing posted on the Australian stock exchange. Administrators have said that there are no immediate plans for any staff layoffs.
Air New Zealand brought forward (from October 2020) the closure of its Heathrow cabin crew base and has ended its Heathrow to Auckland (via Los Angeles) rotation after almost 40 years. The airline has reduced capacity by 95% and has said that demand will be reviewed on a route-by-route bases before any flights resume.
WHEN AND HOW WILL IT BE SAFE TO FLY AGAIN?
This of course is the golden question which currently, none of us know.
Many carriers across the globe are now introducing the compulsory wearing of ‘face-coverings’ or ‘face masks’. Indeed The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the body representing global airlines came out in favour of passengers wearing masks on board, as debate intensifies over how to get airlines flying while respecting health, hygiene and social-distancing rules.
Airports have already introduced measures to cater for essential travellers based on government guidelines – including between one and two-metre distancing at all times, hand sanitisers distributed throughout the terminal and efforts to spread passengers more evenly across terminals.
Manchester Airports Group (MAG) which owns Manchester, Stansted and East Midlands airports have said that they will be introducing new rules on face coverings and gloves for staff and passengers. Temperature screening trials will also be conducted at Stansted, with Heathrow already trialling large-scale temperature checks.
At Hong Kong International Airport testing is under way on a full-body disinfectant device which can sanitise users within 40 seconds using sprays that kill bacteria and viruses on skin and clothing. The airport is also trialling autonomous cleaning robots that move around the airport killing microbes by zapping then with ultraviolet light.
Social distancing is something that has been proven to be effective in protecting people against the virus. But social distancing within the confines of an aircraft or indeed an airport will be SO hard to manage.
Indeed, Heathrow Airports boss John Holland Kaye said that social distancing at airports is “Physically impossible.” In an interview with the Press Association Mr Holland-Kaye said “It “does not work in any form of public transport, let alone aviation” and that a “better solution” is needed to make air travel safe which may include “some kind of health screening as you come in to the terminal” and “as you go through the airport, you will probably be wearing a face mask.”
But just as taking out liquids and devices before going through security has become the norm, so too (eventually) will new social distancing guidelines.
easyJet, Emirates and Delta have all stated that they will be keeping the middle seat empty on their planes for the foreseeable future and Aer Lingus is reviewing its policies following a claim by passengers that it did not maintain social distancing on a Belfast to London flight on May 4.
But the ever out-spoken boss of Ryanair Michael O’Leary has said that his airline will not be following suit calling the idea of social distancing on flights ‘idiotic’ and if the Irish government imposing the rule the it would have to pay for the empty seat “or we won’t fly.” However it has told staff in an internal message, that face masks will be mandatory for crew and passengers and temperature checks will be conducted at airports across the network. The airline has also announced that passengers will have to ask permission to use the toilet to avoid queueing.
Controversially the UK government have announced they are to ‘bring in a 14-day quarantine’ for air passengers, meaning anyone arriving in the UK from any country apart from the Republic of Ireland and France will have to self-isolate at a private residence for two weeks. Airlines have understandably reacted with anger to the proposal stating that such a measure “Would effectively kill air travel.”
For cabin crew, the introduction of personal protective equipment (PPE) as part of our uniforms is looking more and more likely, with some carriers rolling out a brand new look for its staff. Korean Airlines provided full PPE for its flight attendants which it described as “light and ready to wear” in a colour that matches its original uniform. Filipino couturier Edwin Tan created a full PPE uniform for Philippine Airlines while AirAsia Philippines enlisted fashion designer Puey Quiñones to create an outfit for its crew – a head to toe PPE boiler suit with matching medical mask, protective visor, and disposable gloves. Emirates meanwhile has gone for a more middle ground look, wearing a safety visor, masks and gloves, plus a transparent disposable dress-length gown for crew and airport staff to wear over their uniforms, with portions of the body still exposed. Thai Airways has adopted a similar look.
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN FOR OUR INDUSTRY?
Attention is now turning to the future of air travel and how airlines can try and return to some sort of “normality” with many believing that it could take up to three years for the aviation industry to recover.
According to the UN’s civil aviation body ICAO, international air passenger traffic in the first three quarters of 2020 could drop by as many as 1.2 billion travellers or by two-thirds.
Boeing which have cut 10% of its global workforce has said it does not expect air travel to return to 2019 levels until at least 2023 – possibly giving the manufacturer some breathing space for its beleaguered 737MAX.
But others are more optimistic. Michael O’Leary told the Financial Times that he expects a “relatively quick recovery”, with 80% of flights having resumed by September and, subject to an effective vaccine, Ryanair would be carrying its “2019 traffic plus growth” by summer 2021.
Wizzair boss József Váradi has said that because most people will be worse off following the pandemic “This new economic climate will strengthen the hand of budget airlines.”
In terms of restarting operations in Europe, British Airways owner IAG tentatively plans the largest increase, operating 45% of capacity between July and September. Air France-KLM projects to fly only around 20%. Ryanair plans to operate around 50% of capacity while easyJet is not yet providing guidance.
Some airlines have announced that they will work together to match each others capacity. “Our intent is to operate at the same relative level as our competitors,” Air France-KLM Group CEO Benjamin Smith told investors last week and IAG CEO Willie Walsh said “I don’t think it’s going to ultimately be a million miles away from what we all do.”
Czech Airlines planned to resume some of its operations on May 18 after a six-week interruption while Dutch flag carrier KLM have relaunched services to eight European destinations, all while reportedly losing 25 million euros per day.
The Lufthansa Group, one of the world’s largest airline groups announced plans to resume services to 106 destinations in June. “We sense a great desire and longing among people to travel again. Hotels and restaurants are slowly opening, and visits to friends and family are in some cases being allowed again,” Lufthansa Board Member Harry Hohmeister said in a press statement. Across its airline subsidiaries, the group plans to phase 80 aircraft back into service that had previously been stored. Most of these reinstated flights will operate within Europe as the group has announced no firm plans to resume additional long-haul services.
Indeed, it is believed that domestic routes within countries will open up first, followed by short-haul international services with intercontinental travel following sometime after that.
The pandemic has also meant that many iconic aircraft, including the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380 may never take to the skies again.
Lufthansa, has brought forward the retirement of five 747s and KLM also confirmed that its jumbos will not return to the skies under its livery. Virgin Atlantic, who has flown the iconic ‘jumbo jet’ since its inception in 1984 has said that the seven 747-400’s in its fleet will not return to the skies. The type was already planned for retirement in 2021, which would have no doubt been carried out as a big celebration. Qantas planned to retire its 747’s at the end of this year but after a final transpacific flight from Santiago to Sydney the aircraft, which like with Virgin has been an integral part of the fleet for decades, has unofficially been grounded. You can read more about the 747s retirement in our ‘Queen of the Skies’ tribute
The world’s other ‘super-jumbo’ the Airbus A380 was already on thin ice, with the European manufacturer ceasing production of the type in 2021 and many airlines looking at removing the aircraft from its fleet much sooner than expected. Air France and Malaysia Airlines look likely never to operate the A380 in their fleets again, while its future with Korean Air, Thai Airways International, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways and Asiana is also in doubt.
None of us know what the future holds for our jobs. Even when, or indeed, if, I/we get back in to the skies – how different it is going to look compared to March 12? Never have we faced such a massive battle, not even after 9/11. Then we faced the threat of terrorists who wanted to indiscriminately kill innocent people. Now we face an invisible killer that threatens to do the same.
But one thing is certain, the spirit of our aviation family is strong. From pilots to passengers, cabin crew to catering, ground crew and engineering we WILL overcome this and while the aviation industry make look totally different in a few months time the passion and love that we all had before this will remain the same.
If you are faced with redundancy and are looking for some free advice as to what your rights are then please head over to lawya where you can find some great free advice to guide you through these uncertain times.
And please, if anyone is struggling with their mental health you don’t have to suffer alone….
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