The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the aviation sector Contents

1. Introduction

1.The global coronavirus pandemic in 2020 has reached, to some degree, into all areas of the UK and world economy. Few industries, however, have been affected as significantly as aviation. Commercial air travel was initially a key factor behind the rapid global spread of Covid-19 in the first months of 2020, as infected passengers carried the disease thousands of miles across international borders, while the scientific understanding of the disease was still developing.

2.As the virus spread and the seriousness of its implications became better understood, national governments took extreme and unprecedented measures to contain it. Aviation was naturally one of the first industries to be significantly affected, as national governments closed international borders to prevent non-essential travel. Thousands of holidaymakers and business travellers had their pre-booked flights cancelled. Around the world thousands of planes were grounded and left idle on tarmac.

3.The UK Government followed many other countries in taking such actions. On 17 March 2020, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab MP announced to the House of Commons that the Government was advising against all international travel in light of the pandemic:

UK travellers abroad now face wide-spread international border restrictions, and lockdowns in various countries […] With immediate effect, I have taken the decision to advise British nationals against non-essential travel globally, for an initial period of 30 days.1

Demand for air travel was further stifled on 23 March when the Prime Minister announced the closure of large parts of the UK economy, including all hotels and hostels for commercial use (with some exceptions), and instructed people to only leave their homes for a limited number of reasons.

4.The sudden and almost complete shutdown of passenger air travel had a severe economic impact on airlines, airports and air freight. Governments across the world responded with a mix of support, ranging from individual ‘bailout’ deals for airlines to industry-wide rescue packages to wider employment retention schemes available across multiple industries. Many international airlines have taken advantage of state support although for some struggling businesses, such as Flybe, the pandemic proved to be the final straw that precipitated collapse. Other airlines, such as British Airways and easyJet, have announced potential largescale redundancies as they seek to restructure their businesses.

5.Today, in mid-June, many countries in Europe and Asia are easing their lockdown measures, although the pandemic is still to reach its peak in other parts of the world. The future of the UK aviation industry remains precarious. Many countries, including the UK, continue to discourage or prohibit non-essential global travel. Many UK holidaymakers do not expect to fly abroad for their summer holiday—though some airlines have announced plans to run a significant summer schedule.2 The number of passengers travelling by air remains a fraction of pre-pandemic levels and some in the industry believe that this uncertainty may persist for up to two or three years, having a potentially industry-changing effect on aviation.3 As a result, the outlook for the industry remains challenging and uncertain.

Our inquiry

6.We announced an inquiry into the implications of the coronavirus outbreak on transport in April 2020. We decided to focus first on aviation, given the immediate and pressing challenges facing the sector. We received more than 60 submissions of written evidence, including from aviation workers and passengers awaiting refunds. We held three oral evidence sessions with industry representatives (airlines, airports, and ground handlers), trade unions, consumer groups and advocates, the Civil Aviation Authority and the Minister for Aviation, Kelly Tolhurst MP (“the Minister”). We are grateful to all those who contributed to our inquiry. We would especially like to thank the thousands of British Airways employees who submitted written evidence, or emailed us, to raise their concerns about the potential impact of job losses and changes in their employment terms and conditions.4

7.Our focus in this urgent inquiry was on the near- to medium-term: the immediate crisis facing the aviation industry, the real-life consequences for businesses, workers and passengers, and how the sector can restart and recover. Given the time available and the high level of uncertainty about the pandemic, we did not examine in great depth the longer-term implications for air travel. This would have been premature and speculative. We intend to return to examine the longer-term implications for air travel once the immediate crisis has subsided.

1 HC Deb, 17 March 2020, col 779

2 “Ryanair to restore 40% of scheduled flights from 1 July”, Ryanair press release, 12 May 2020; “EasyJet to resume flights across most European routes by August”, The Guardian, 2 June 2020

3 “Don’t make a slow recovery more difficult with quarantine measures”, IATA press release, 13 May 2020

4 Open letter by the Committee to all who have responded to the Committee’s ongoing work on the implications of coronavirus on UK transport, 18 May 2020

Published: 13 June 2020