350 Million Seats Could Be Removed From Schedules By March

Aviation analysts OAG have reviewed the trends in airline schedules emerging from the early weeks of 2021. Right now, capacity worldwide is almost half of what it was in January 2020, but the report warns that worse is yet to come. With increasingly restrictive travel policies rolling out worldwide, OAG predicts that a further 350 million seats could be removed from schedules by March.

American Airbus A321
American Airlines has taken the spot as the world’s largest airline by seats, but only just. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | JFKJets.com

Travel restrictions mean more seats will be lost

In all corners of the world, we’ve seen aviation’s recovery begin to stall – in a big way. From Canada to the UK and beyond, airlines are trimming schedules, cutting capacity, and shedding staff. The second wave of COVID and increasingly restrictive travel policies make it nearly impossible to fly.

New analysis this week from OAG predicts that this trend will continue. By the end of the winter season, in March, global capacity is forecast to drop by as much as 350 million seats.

Air Canada Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner C-FVND
Air Canada today announced its plan to trim schedules and staff. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | JFKJets.com

Across the world, the average seat capacity for January 2021 is down 47% year on year. But OAG says that, taking into account the strict lockdowns, testing requirements and other travel restrictions recently put in place, we’ll see a further 350 million scheduled seats removed by airlines in the coming weeks.

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Rapid reductions

Digging into the data, OAG shows how, in some regions of the world, scheduled capacity has been driven down by as much as 25% in a matter of just a couple of weeks. For example, in Western Europe, the week of December 30th saw more than 19 million seats in the sky. By January 11th, that had dropped to just 4.7 million seats.

Western European airlines are now flying at -75% of the capacity they were in the same week last year. A further 580,000 seats have been lost from Eastern Europe too, leaving that region down almost 60% compared to last year.

Ryanair pulled thousands of seats from its schedule in recent weeks. Photo: Getty Images

In North America, the loss of seats is not quite so marked. Over the weeks detailed in the OAG report, 6.3% has been lost week on week. However, the number of seats flying now is around 10 million less than was in operation over the holiday period.

The only regions really showing any growth at all are South Asia and Southwest Pacific, and even then, they are modest figures. South Asia has grown capacity by 1.9%, largely driven by the imminent Chinese New Year. The region is still down 33% from its capacity in January 2020. Southwest Pacific had the biggest growth of any region at 2.5%, although again, overall capacity is down more than 53%.

As OAG points out, the biggest encouragement this week comes from Australia, which has re-entered the top 10 country market table thanks to around 50,000 seats a week being added. Overall capacity is still down 54%, but with Qantas now rebooting its international flights, hopes are high for a steady recovery through 2021.

Qantas Completes 'Project Sunrise' Research Flight From London To Sydney
Qantas has been adding back capacity little by little. Photo: Getty Images

The biggest airlines

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen the strangest of airlines taking the lead as the world’s largest carrier. While China Southern’s claim of the top spot wasn’t hugely surprising, Southwest’s brief stint as the biggest did raise a few eyebrows.

Now, things are starting to look more as expected. American Airlines is back at the top of the table, although only by the slimmest of margins. Just 1,321 seats put it ahead of Delta, which OAG states is a difference of only about 11 flights.

Third and fourth are China Eastern and China Southern, both flying over two million seats a week. However, with China Eastern loading back in capacity hand over fist, growing its seats by 5.1% in the past week, we could yet see another shift in the leaderboard as the winter season plays out.