As COVID-19 restrictions ease across the world, airlines will have to be quick to recover from the long periods of furlough and reduced numbers of staff.
Last week, airlines in the U.S. saw their busiest weekend since 2020, as the Transport Secretary Administration revealed that over 2.5 million people travelled through airports over the two day period. On Friday 12th March almost 1.5 million people travelled through airports in the U.S., making it the single busiest day for the airline industry since 15th March 2020 when lockdown restrictions started to be implemented across U.S. states.
Such figures are still expected to rise dramatically as restrictions ease, with these passenger numbers still lying 46 percent lower than the same day in 2019.
Good news for the American economy, but how will the airlines fare?
All airlines have been impacted by the lack of business in one way or another but the difference in their responses to the pandemic could she some light on how well they will cope with this upcoming surge in travel.
Although this airline has the largest fleet of aircraft in the country, these assets have come at a cost. FitchRatings have raised concerns around potential bankruptcy for the airline, which relied heavily on relief bills to keep themselves afloat.
Nevertheless, American have produced an effective COVID-19 policy to ensure safe travel for their customers. They were the first airline to achieve GBAC STAR™ Accreditation from the Global Biorisk Advisory Council, ensuring they have proper procedures to respond to biological threats including COVID-19.
In spite of this, American Airlines removed its capacity limits from its COVID policy in summer 2020, meaning there is possibility for the planes to remain full, ignoring important social distancing guidance. This move goes against concerns shared by Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, who shared her concerns that “Every time there's a surge in travel, we have a surge in cases in this country,”.
One would imagine that social distancing and proper measures being implemented should therefore be at the forefront of the airlines mind.
Hoping to emerge from the pandemic as the ‘best global airline in the world’, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby is optimistic about the opportunities that will emerge when lockdowns start to end.
Speaking at an investor conference yesterday, Kirby highlighted that “Our long term [prediction] has been consistently optimistic”, with cash flow this month expected to be positive following a year of negative cash flow in 2020.
Judson Rolling, Managing Partner of Propel Aviation Solutions, said he believed United would “ride out the financial storm” due to its strong balance sheets and sufficient unencumbered assets but would likely emerge far smaller than they were a year ago.
If Rolling’s predictions are correct, United may struggle to respond to a surge in demand in the coming months if their workforce and capabilities are limited as a result of the pandemic.
Spirit Airlines does not seem quite so prepared for this surge. Almost 6 months into the pandemic the low-cost airline still did not have clear cleaning procedures and still do not have any efforts in place to limit flight capacity, in spite of the importance they place on social distancing at check-in counters.
A study carried out by the Lancet iterates the importance of physical distancing of 1m or more to help lower the risk of infection, whilst face masks were only “associated with protection” within the study. Subsequently Spirit Airlines’ policies may be deemed below-par with regards to infection control.
Their CEO, Ted Christie, seemed encouraged by the recovery that airlines were making however their lack of preparedness is likely to make them a less favoured choice for those travelling in the near future.
Delta, by contrast, appear to be the airline that has responded best to the virus. With none of its staff being furloughed during the pandemic, the airline has placed itself in a strong position to cope with a surge in travel, with satisfied staff happy to manage this surge.
The airline landed the top spot in a COVID Report carried out by Forbes, looking at the best and worst airlines during Coronavirus. The article said that Delta had the “best response to the coronavirus pandemic” and ranked highly due to its “impressive cleaning procedures—including electrostatic spraying with disinfectant of jets before all flights—as well as deep cleanings of gate areas and jet bridges”. It’s ticket flexibility
The article went on to acknowledge Delta’s innovative back-to-front boarding policy and restrictive passenger capacity. This, combined with staff satisfaction, will ensure that the airline is well equipped to manage a surge in demand whilst keeping its passengers safe.
Overall, airlines are likely to manage the surge. However, it seems that success of their performance with a surge in travel will vary hugely due to a variety of COVID-19 policies among the airlines. The coming months will be incredibly trying for all airlines, with those who are more adaptable to an ever changing environment more likely to succeed as the pandemic rolls out and guidance and international policies continue to change.