EDITORIAL: For airlines, 2021 looks no easier

Credit: Rob Finlayson

The air travel demand recovery that airlines, airports and tourism organizations were hoping to see emerge this year, albeit slowly, is so far proving elusive. 

Upticks did occur last summer and around some holidays, but they have not been sustainable and, if anything, have reversed. IATA noted this week that air travel demand, measured in RPKs, ended 2020 70% down versus a year earlier; 43% down in domestic markets (and many countries do not have significant domestic markets); and a devastating 85% down in international. That’s pretty much on a par with where the industry stood in April, its worst month in the worst year it has ever experienced.

The main reason 2021 kicked off so badly is twofold: new variants of the COVID-19 coronavirus are adding new fears and persuading individuals and corporations to further postpone travel. Governments, meanwhile, are reacting to the emergence of new virus variants with extreme caution. Border closures are often their default action. So even those people who might be inclined to travel cannot, either because quarantine/testing mandates are too oppressive and expensive or because government rules prohibit their travel.

And the travel restrictions are becoming more burdensome. In the US, the Biden administration’s rule mandating masks on planes, trains and buses was roundly welcomed by airlines, labor groups and industry advocacy groups. It essentially gave legal reinforcement to a rule that US airlines had already implemented to help keep passengers and crews safe. But a new proposal, apparently being considered on the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would expand a negative COVID test requirement to all domestic flights (it became a requirement for inbound international flights in January). 

This is sending shudders through an industry already coming to terms with how hard 2021 is going to be.

Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International President Sara Nelson told lawmakers this week it would be “devastating” and pointed to the inconsistencies: a test is not required for train journeys or to enter a grocery store or restaurant. 

More than what virus containment rules like quarantines and testing do or don’t do, it’s the hassle factor that steer travelers away. A two-week quarantine, especially if it must take place in a government-approved hotel at the traveler’s cost, is as effective as a border closure. Almost nobody is going to do it. The US domestic market, relative to many, held up fairly well and, combined with robust government aid support, enabled US airlines to survive 2020. But their chances will greatly diminish if the domestic travel demand is further bruised by a test mandate.  In America, many people will opt to drive or simply to not go. 

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief and Aviation Week Network Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief. She joined ATW in 2011 and oversees the editorial content and direction of ATW, Routes and Aviation Week Group air transport content.