Lots of distancing, no long-distance: airlines cautiously return to the sky

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Monday’s easyJet flight from London to Glasgow will be its first scheduled departure for 11 weeks. How will the public respond?

London to Glasgow is a small hop for an Airbus A320 jet. But it will be a significant leap out of lockdown for easyJet when its first scheduled flight since late March takes to the skies at 7am on Monday.

No passenger has climbed into its orange-and-white planes since 11 weeks ago, when the airline shut down operations after flying its last holidaymakers from Tenerife back to Gatwick. At dizzying speed, European airlines have seen a virus whose risks had seemed distant and marginal put their entire existence in doubt.

Revenues have dried up, thousands of staff have been furloughed or given notice of redundancy, and airport terminals have been closed or left eerily empty, while airlines sought emergency loans to survive.

Now, even though Covid-19 is in retreat (at best), airlines are praying for business to return. Some have kept flying a few routes throughout the restrictions, but this week will see a first, small ramp-up of services, among which easyJet’s resurrection is the most significant in the UK.

Only 10 aircraft of its fleet of more than 300 will be in service on Monday, operating domestic flights between airports including Bristol, Liverpool, Belfast and Newcastle, as well as services within continental Europe around Switzerland, France, Italy and Portugal. A total of 310 flights are scheduled this week.

Ryanair has maintained a skeleton service between Dublin and British airports and a handful of flights from Stansted to Europe while grounding 99% of its aircraft. Next Sunday it adds 79 routes between the UK and Ireland and Poland, which has reopened borders and lifted restrictions this weekend. From July, the airline hopes to bring back 40% of its schedule.

British Airways – the flag carrier now branded a “national disgrace” by MPs for its plans to cut jobs and alter conditions – had announced its intention to restart flying in earnest from July. Now it says schedules will remain under review because of the quarantine rules instigated last week, which outraged airlines just as they were making plans to “save summer”.

The row still rages. The three biggest UK carriers, easyJet, BA and Ryanair, have launched legal action to tackle what BA’s owner, IAG, has labelled the “irrational and disproportionate” rules that make passengers flying into the UK self-isolate for 14 days. As tourism and travel bosses have emphasised, the restrictions effectively kill any possible leisure travel, inbound or outbound.

Another spat has blown up about the safety of hand luggage, after the government published its advice – drawn up with the industry – on what safe air travel might look like. Ryanair swiftly described it as nonsense.

In any event, life on board will be, for now, very different. Face coverings are to become mandatory on planes and advisory throughout the airports, as on all UK public transport from Monday.

Trolley service is to be scrapped or reduced, distancing enforced where possible, toilet visits discouraged, and enough reminders plastered around to wash hands and not touch anything as to make the hardiest traveller a nervous germophobe. While most will welcome the focus on safety, the experience is likely to become – more than ever – an endurance test rather than a pleasure.

Captain David Morgan, easyJet’s director of flight operations, who will take the first flight out of Gatwick, acknowledges the changes could be a shock to some. “We’ll have … enhanced aircraft disinfection, customers and crew will be required to wear masks on board, and initially we won’t serve any food or drinks.” The measures will he says, remain for as long as is needed while coronavirus remains a threat – certainly, most would assume, the next few months. It’s probably bearable for necessary travel, but hardly enticing for leisure.

Morgan concedes that “the airport environment could feel a little different for younger travellers when flying over the summer holidays”. If few parents can ever have happily contemplated the airport stage of a family trip, the lurking threat of a deadly virus may push the dread too far, even despite easyJet’s efforts to ease the pain by issuing comic face mask covers (for kids).

And yet, according to the initial experience of airlines abroad, passengers appear ready to fly. John Strickland, a consultant, points to France and Turkey, where internal flights have restarted. “The domestic market looks quite buoyant … destinations are opening up and there has been a spike in travel and searches,” he says. “As soon as the straitjacket is taken off by government, people seem to be booking travel.”

Load factors – the average proportion of seats on a flight that are occupied – have surpassed 70% in Turkey. In the UK, however, optimism over bookings has been quashed by quarantine restrictions, and Strickland is downbeat about their prospects. “There is risk to adding capacity: airlines need a lead time to generate sufficient bookings. Even if the government was to change tack or introduce air bridges, it would take weeks. The summer season is already under way. It’s good to see these hesitant signs of interest in travelling – but there is a lot of work to be done still to build confidence.”

Aviation bodies have seized on the European commission’s calls to lift all intra-EU travel restrictions from Monday to stress that passengers can fly safely. The International Air Transport Association has claimed that enhanced biosafety measures make “airport and aircraft environments exceptionally sanitised and controlled public spaces”. Patrick Ky, the executive director of the EU air safety agency, Easa, said: “We are confident that, providing individuals behave responsibly and abide by the measures being put in place by airports and airlines, passengers can return to the skies with confidence.”

But while the cooped-up population may be emboldened to take a quick break in Portugal, a rally for the long-haul travel that once filled BA’s coffers looks further off. “Recovery on long haul will be years out – and business travel will be reduced significantly,” says Strickland.

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