Eurocontrol Predicts A Bleak Winter Ahead For European Aviation

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The Director General of Eurocontrol, Eamonn Brennan, has outlined a difficult winter ahead for European aviation. With continual changes to travel restrictions resulting in a lack of forward bookings, capacity is disappearing from the network every day. Without a coordinated response from European governments, airlines are unlikely to come through the winter in good shape.

KLM-tailfins-schiphol
Eurocontrol’s Director General has painted a bleak picture of winter in Europe. Photo: KLM

A harsh winter ahead

This winter is likely to be one of the worst ever faced by European aviation. With no cushion of summer revenue to protect airlines from the low season and cases of COVID spiking across the continent, it seems inevitable many carriers will not come out of the winter in good shape. Some might not come out of it at all.

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In September, The European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation, commonly known as Eurocontrol, revised its Draft Traffic Scenarios downwards quite significantly, as the second wave of COVID began to spread across the continent. While the scenario set out in April had seen capacity recovering to around 85% of 2019 levels by February 2021, the agency now believes this will not be achieved by a long stretch.

Eurocontrol traffic estimates
Eurocontrol revised its estimates down in September, but says it might have to again. Image: Eurocontrol

Speaking ahead of the agency’s Hard Talk session yesterday, Director General of Eurocontrol, Eamonn Brennan, presented a stark outlook for European aviation.

Capacity estimates are now showing flights to remain at 50% of 2019 levels or lower, right through the winter season. Brennan said that even this scenario was now being brought into doubt, commenting,

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“Looking at the whole European system, we’ve seen a 75% reduction air traffic since 2019. And this is basically a catastrophic situation for Europe. The scenario for the winter doesn’t look very good. And what we’re facing is a situation where even the projections that we made two weeks ago, we’re now looking at them being very difficult indeed. And we’re looking at having to revise them further down.”

Getting worse by the day

The Eurocontrol boss highlighted the speed at which airlines are pulling capacity out of the network. While some had laid on a good number of flights towards the end of the summer season, hoping to catch some late holiday traffic, the situation now is that these capacity additions are being rapidly reversed amid border closures and changing quarantine restrictions. Brennan said,

“If we just look at where are we now, today, in the last seven days, we are 56%, down in flights from the same period last year. We’ve never seen this before in 50 years, in even a hundred years of aviation. Yesterday, the 14th of October, a 58% reduction. So we’re looking at the situation becoming worse each day.”

easyJet
easyJet has pulled more than 50% of its capacity in the last two weeks. Photo: Getty Images

Brennan highlighted easyJet as an example of where capacity has been rapidly pulled from the network. On October 14th, Wednesday this week, easyJet operated 269 flights. Compared to just two weeks ago, that’s a reduction of 53%, showcasing just how rapidly carriers are pulling back from the network.

“All information is that they probably won’t return it until after the new year,” commented the Director General.

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Coordination called for

The situation in Europe, which is mirrored in other places worldwide, has primarily arisen over the uncertainty regarding travel. As borders have opened and quarantines removed, airlines have often seen a surge in travel bookings. This pent up demand, however, has been stifled by continual changes to the rules, making passengers afraid to go abroad in case they are either stranded overseas or forced to quarantine on their return.

“The big issue here is that forward bookings, particularly for the latter half of November and December. One CEO told me he has 10% of forward bookings compared to the same day last year,” said Brennan.

UK Quarantine Heathrow
The UK’s quarantine policy has been a thorn in the side of many airlines. Photo: Getty Images

The lack of forward bookings is a symptom of the uncoordinated approach to travel restrictions across Europe. Pressure is growing on European governments to act in a more coordinated manner, with the European Commission as well as industry bodies like IATA demanding a more predictable response. This, says Brennan, is the only thing that will save the industry from a very bleak winter.

“We cannot get certainty into the industry until this happens,” he concluded.

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