In the past fortnight COVID-19 has brought the world to a virtual standstill, and much of the international airline fleet with it. The cumulative effect of travel bans, stay at home orders and social distancing rules has seen the number of flights worldwide whittled to about 40% of their usual levels according to Flightradar24.
That as International Air Transport Association (IATA) says around 8,500 passenger aircraft–one third of the world’s total commercial passenger fleet– have been grounded over past weeks as global travel restrictions snowball.
COVID-19 has delivered “an unprecedented shock” to airlines says IATA due to decimated passenger revenues. Going by data from travel analyst Cirium it is projecting losses to the aviation industry could hit $252 billion.
Could Flights Worldwide Drop To Half The Global Norm…At Least
But it’s the imagery of air traffic right now which fascinates me, though of course, for all the wrong reasons. Based on real-time flight tracking of commercial aircraft, Swedish-based Flightradar24 presents maps of planes in the skies on February 29 and March 29. The images paint a grimmish if not telling picture:
From the information, it concludes flights have been slashed in the last two weeks of March by 41% compared to the same time last year. The reaction by airlines to government travel restrictions has prompted “an unprecedented decline in global air traffic” says communications director Ian Petchenik.
Earlier in March, Peter Harbison, chairman of Sydney-based industry group, Centre for Aviation, predicted up to 80% of the world’s overall fleet could eventually be grounded as a result of coronavirus travel restrictions.
It’s early days yet. Many of the airlines are only just grounding their global fleets. So a check back in on these maps in a fortnight’s time may see them looking increasingly sparse in terms of flight density.
As it is says Petchenik, in just a fortnight air traffic has been heavily dented: “The average number of total flights per day in March 2019 was 176,000. In March 2020 the average number of total flights per day is 145,000.”
On Monday night he tweeted there were just nine A380s up in the air around 8 p.m. The usual he said for the world’s largest passenger planes would be “100 to 110”.
The A380 by the way are used primarily by Emirates, which has a fleet of 112 according to aviation news site, Simple Flying, followed by Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, BA and Qantas. In all about a dozen airlines use them. Most of these have currently suspended all or most of their international flights. With the big exception of course of Qatar which says it’s still operating a third of its usual long-haul fleet.
Dubai-based Emirates, the world’s largest long-haul airline, stopped flying passengers for two weeks from March 25 as did neighboring Etihad in Abu Dhabi. “The corona-crisis has effectively pushed the Airbus A380 out of the skies,” Simple Flying put it following the Emirates move.
U.S. Joins Move To Ground Most Long-Haul Flights
Amid stark satellite images of dozens of empty planes parked on runways, an estimated 70 airlines around the world have currently grounded their fleets completely. Others like Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific are now putting a stop to almost all international flights into April or May.
The domino effect is increasingly reaching the U.S. American Airlines announced Friday it is cutting 60-70% of its domestic schedule and 80-90% of its international flights over April and May. The international cuts start from April 5. CEO Doug Parker said many planes had been operating about 15% full.
United has already slashed its April schedule by more than 60% and may be planning deeper cuts into June. According to The Points Guy, United will operate just six long-haul routes through until at least May. Delta is set to ground 600 of its 900-strong fleet.
As the corona-crisis spirals in the U.S. calls are growing louder for even more of a clampdown on domestic air travel too. If that happens more airlines across the United States will start to resemble graveyards. Already said Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist at Charles Schwab, the impact of COVID-19 travel bans on major U.S. airports were in plain to see in March.
Recovery For Air Travel Tipped To Be Slow: At Least A Year
Going back to IATA’s forecasts, which are based on a 3 month lockdown of the global air travel market, it feels the recovery is going to be slow. Longer than 6-7 months observed in past epidemics. Why? Because “of the staggered timing of the outbreak in different regions” first up. Secondly because of the knock-on effect of the expected global recession on passenger demand–even after border restrictions are lifted.