How are airlines reacting to coronavirus?

The aviation industry is in crisis as ‘social distancing’ prevents travel. Here’s what you need to know

How are airlines reacting to coronavirus?
(Image credit: British Airways)

The aviation industry is usually one of the most confident around, frequently predicting that air travel will double in the next 20 years. Now the story is very different. In a fast-changing situation, coronavirus-inspired border closures, travel bans and a falling demand for flights are forcing airlines to slash routes, park their aircraft, and temporarily lay off staff. 

Although it’s likely to bounce back once the pandemic has subsided, the crisis threatens to put significant parts of one of the world’s major industries out of business. It looks like COVID-19 pandemic is going to have an effect on travel long after the immediate crisis is over. 

What does this mean for those of us with flights booked?

So how bad is it? 

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that global passenger airlines will lose up to US$113 billion in revenue. Many airlines across the globe could go bankrupt, possibly as early as May and in the UK the situation is just as dire, with airlines requesting financial support from the government – as much as £7.5 billion – to get them through the next few weeks and months. 

What are the UK’s major airlines doing?

Flybe has already gone bust, and the UK’s biggest airlines have announced drastic cost-cutting measures to cope with the fallout of coronavirus. British Airways has cut 75% of its scheduled flights, Virgin Atlantic has slashed 80% of its flights and asked its staff to take eight weeks unpaid leave over the next three months, Norwegian Air is cutting 3,000 flights and laying-off 7,500 staff, and both Easyjet and Ryanair may need to ground their entire fleets

What should I do about my flight?

Aviation is an industry now in constant flux, so before you fly, check with your airline. If you’ve got a flight booked anywhere over the next few months, there’s a good chance it will be cancelled or rescheduled, but you cannot apply for a refund in advance. 

Airlines can only fly where travel restrictions allow and where it is safe to do so. As well as following the foreign travel advice from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), other countries’ ever-changing restrictions come into play. 

However, deciding you don’t want to travel is not a good enough reason to claim a refund; if your flight goes ahead and you don’t get on the plane, you cannot claim a refund. Thankfully, you can reschedule your flight now; for upcoming flights, British Airways customers are being asked to apply for a voucher online that can be redeemed against future travel, for flights taken within 12 months of your original date of departure. Meanwhile, like most other airlines, Easyjet has waived flight change fees for those that want to change their flights to another date. 

Is this a good time to get a bargain? 

Yes and no. The travel industry at large is desperate for cash, so there are all kinds of tempting offers on hotel rooms, flights and holidays in the latter months of 2020 and 2021. Some hotels, airlines and travel companies will go out of business before the COVID-19 crisis is over, so you’re taking a risk, but that might be something you’re prepared to do. One way is to make sure any package holiday you do book is ATOL-protected, which guarantees you your money back whatever happens.  

Whatever your essential travel plans, check back on the FCO’s foreign travel advice website for the latest information on where it’s possible to travel to. 

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Jamie Carter

Jamie is a freelance journalist, copywriter and author with 20 years' experience. He's written journalism for over 50 publications and websites and, when he's not writing, spending most of his time travelling – putting the latest travel tech through its paces.