With the appropriate steps to improve the sanitary situation in airports and aboard aircraft, airlines around the globe are looking to restart passenger activity. The way forward is unclear, and indeed not easy.

Airlines are not in control of many of the variables that restrict the restart. Governments need to open borders, airports need to redesign traffic flows to and from the gates, flight operations must be adapted, and above all: passengers need confidence that flying is okay again.

According to Alexandre de Juniac, Director General and CEO of IATA, the restart will probably happen in three phases. Domestic markets will be the first, followed by intra-continental and later the inter-continental markets. He hopes to see around 50% to 60% of the pre-COVID-19 activity by the end of the year.

In terms of the types of traffic, most experts agree that leisure traffic will pick up sooner than business travel. For business travel, it may take a while before conferences are again high on the list; the lockdown has shown that other means of doing business exist without long travel.

The question is not whether web-based meetings will continue to be used; the answer is yes, but will they adequately replace person-to-person meetings, or will some new hybrid equilibrium be found with less travel then before? Or, after a few years, will travel habits return to what had been “normal”?

Meanwhile, we see some airlines around the world already operating a limited schedule or planning the first routes to re-open.

China was the first country to be hit by the virus, but even at the top of the pandemic, they managed to keep around 23% of regular activity. They were also the first country to emerge from the virus crisis and are gradually opening up their networks. According to the CAAC, Chinese airlines operate more than 10.000 flights per day, representing 60% of normal.

Chinese carriers are even being allowed two flights weekly to and from the United States, slightly lifting a near-total ban imposed at the end of January. In a degree of reciprocity, China is allowing one flight each week by US carriers Delta and United.

Other Asian airlines are also slowly re-emerging. Vietnam Airlines and Vietjet are serving all domestic routes. Singapore Airlines is already operating an international network with flights to Europe and Australia. Philip Goh, Regional VP, said, “This is a first step, but there is a long way to go before a meaningful return of capacity.” Cathay Pacific will commence some flights to Asian, European and US cities between 21 and 30 June. Korean Air is restarting 19 international routes this month – Washington DC, Seattle, Toronto, Frankfurt, Singapore and others.

Qatar, currently serving 30 destinations, plans to increase to 80 by the end of June, including London, Chicago, Dallas and Hong Kong.

New carrier StarLux Airlines, which launched operations from a Taiwan base at an inopportune time in January, is again recruiting pilots, with the expectation of flights to Macau, Penang and Da Nang this month, adding Cebu, Philippines in July.

Although the US is still suffering from the virus and pockets of outbreaks, the major air carriers are publishing new schedules from June onward that look quite aggressive. United is looking at 30,000 flights, Delta 37,000 and American at 62,000 flights. Southwest is announcing its new program for the winter season and is changing its strategy toward attracting more business-oriented passengers, including some new non-stops.

In Europe, we see airlines starting or getting ready to start again. The travel restrictions put in place by the governments are hampering the planning. Some countries open the border for specific other countries, others for all except specific countries they deem not safe.

The LCC are the first to start. Wizz Air is operating (and added new bases in Italy and Cyprus), and Austrian Airlines plans 40 destinations by the end of June, Paris among them. easyJet will be resuming operations from 15 June and looks at running around 30% capacity and 75% of its routes from July through September. Croatia is resuming several routes by 21 June. In July and August, Iberia will fly to at least 40 destinations and Iberia Express to 53. Lufthansa will open 20 destinations by mid-June. British Airways announced 29 long-haul routes in July, including 13 North American cities, as well as eight UK domestic pairs.

In an interview with CAPA, Gloria Guevara, CEO and President of the World Travel & Tourism Council, said she believed the most critical element in the restart of the airline industry is restoring the confidence of the passengers in the whole travel experience.

There is still among airlines, airports and authorities a very diversified tackling of the challenges. Having different rules and procedures will create confusion in the minds of travellers and thus produce fear.

Guevara urged governments and airports to follow the guidelines from the newly adopted ICAO document, Take Off, dealing with COVID-19-related aviation recovery measures. Having streamlined and uniform procedures and requirements, travellers will feel much more confident and ready to travel again.

“This document needs to be the basis on which everyone proceeds. It is the only way to have a harmonized approach that will give travellers the confidence to take to the skies again,” confirms IATA’s de Juniac.

Part of CAT Magazine's Restarting The Engines series.