The New Normal: Aviation
Nilay Syam

As the COVID-19 pandemic deals a crushing blow to businesses and international trade across the globe, one of the worst-hit has been commercial aviation.

With passenger traffic already dropping sharply as the pandemic spread, stringent lockdowns and travel restrictions left airlines reeling. The feeling of despondency is evident as multiple carriers urge for bailouts and other forms of assistance from the government. Carrying on with operations under such circumstances is tough.

To understand more about how airlines are trying to deal with the crisis, CGTN Europe asked an airline executive, a union leader and passengers to discuss the pressing issues and what the future holds for the beleaguered sector.

Owain Jones is the managing director of WizzAir UK, a Hungarian low-cost airline. The carrier has been affected by the fallout of the outbreak but still continues to fly and remains hopeful that the situation will improve with time.

Stefan Schwerthelm, a board member of the German flight attendant union UFO, spells out clearly the challenges faced by operators and the urgent measures required to instil confidence in passengers and protect the interests of staff.

We also spoke to passengers at Madrid's Barajas airport to get an idea of the troubles faced by many of them. Rafael Martinez lives on the island of Fuerteventura and was trying to get home to visit his sick mother in north west Spain. Rafael expressed concerns on how air travel might change in the foreseeable future and raised a series of pertinent points that need to be addressed by the airline management and authorities.

We have spoken to three people - (L-R) Owain Jones, Stefan Schwerthelm and Rafael Martinez - directly affected by quarantine measures across Europe.

We have spoken to three people - (L-R) Owain Jones, Stefan Schwerthelm and Rafael Martinez - directly affected by quarantine measures across Europe.


What's your take on the impact COVID-19 has had on commercial aviation?

Owain Jones (the airline executive): What we've been dealing with in commercial aviation and the airlines is unprecedented. It's happened in a number of ways: the speed at which the effects were felt, the pace in which we had to react, the severity and also the duration.

Stefan Schwerthelm (the union leader): The damage to the aviation industry is really enormous. Not only the airlines themselves have been hit, but also all those sectors connected to aviation.

Rafael Martinez (the passenger): It has affected a lot of airlines, given the fact that there's been zero movement, at least in my case in Fuerteventura.  


What measures should airlines take to deal with the crisis?

OJ: We really had to change our mindset. At a time like this, cash is king. We've had to concentrate on preserving cash. There's one surefire way to use cash quickly, and that's to have a fleet of 100-plus aircraft and not flying them. So we have to look at all factors, the business, and seeing where we can preserve cash.

SS: The aviation landscape in Europe is just too complex to have a single recipe. Right now in the big airlines there is a thorough research on what the future travel behavior will be: how the markets and in Asia, Latin America will develop in the future and the key question, how to operate more economically.

RM: They will have to sit up and negotiate agreements that benefit everyone, the travelers and the companies.


I hope that we return to normality soon, and everything will just seem like a bad dream.
 -  Rafael Martinez speaking at Madrid's Barajas airport


What effect did the outbreak have on day-to-day operations?

OJ: I think it's worth saying that WizzAir as an airline has flown throughout. We took the view that it's better to use aircraft to provide those essential travel links and do it in a way which generates cash rather than having them sitting on the ground. That's certainly a view which was shared by our colleagues throughout the company.

SS: In Germany, there was a partial lockdown in mid-March and with that Lufthansa had to reduce operations to less than five percent of the original program. That was a very drastic step, even though it was necessary.

RM: It personally affected me a lot because my mother is sick in Asturias and I couldn't travel to visit until today, all the planes leaving Fuerteventura stopped in Madrid, there weren't direct flights to Asturias. 


Will models such as air bridges and travel bubbles help the sector restart?

OJ: I suppose it's worth saying that those are necessary only if you have quarantine. What we do ask, though, is that the measures being taken are transparent. Air corridors and travel bubbles, whatever you want to call them, certainly are one way to ensure that where people need to travel, they can do so safely.

SS: I don't think that this can deliver a sustainable solution. We all don't know if, unfortunately, there would be another pandemic in two years' time which might have a totally different way of transmission. Then these bubbles will not help.

RM: I hope that we return to normality soon, and everything will just seem like a bad dream in the past.


Instilling confidence among travellers would be crucial. What should be the best way to do it?

OJ: One of the important things to emphasize is that there is still not one proven case of somebody having contracted COVID-19 on board an aircraft. But from that starting point, we do recognize that further reassurances are necessary – and that's why we introduced industry-leading health protocols. We are also working with our airport partners in that regard.

SS: The most important aspects are transparency and reliability. The customer expects clear information. Which immediate measures are you taking as an airline? How do recommendations by health organizations and by governments match with what you are doing? Is the crew well-trained? I think there's a big lesson to be learned for all airlines.

RM: I don't think airlines are the ones that have to increase confidence. It depends on the governments and the negotiations they undertake about this situation – it's not the airline's role.


Do you think enough assistance is forthcoming from the government?

OJ: The issue we have had with government response is that it has been uncoordinated across Europe. It's extremely important to launch a coordinated effort, so that when people are traveling, they know where they can travel, how they can travel and the airlines know exactly what regulations need to be complied with.

SS: In the national level for each airline, there were different solutions. I think apart from the financial aid, the European lawmakers need to pass legislations that enable airlines to really get fit for the future, both to reduce their CO2 emissions, and to meet all these new safety and health standards.

RM: It depends on the governments and the airlines, whatever they negotiate, so the citizens can travel again.


How do you see air travel changing in the foreseeable future?

OJ: A lot of the measures that we have in place are there to reassure passengers that it's safe to travel by air. So, in the short term, people are going to have to get used to a new normal. In the longer term, we're hopeful that we'll be able to revisit the measures once the situation stabilizes.

SS: It will be different and so the airlines have to figure out how to create different business models, platforms, offerings to all these different needs. I think both leisure and business travel will return, but business travel will be different in the future.

RM: It will change. It will be different with all the measures that are needed to ensure there isn't a new outbreak and that help people regain trust. But I'm not afraid of traveling in this new normal.            


Video editing: Sam Cordell. Video animation: Ben Wildi.

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