The world used to be your oyster. Today, with one in three airline routes lost due to the pandemic, the interconnectivity we took for granted means fewer direct flights. Olivia Palamountain reports

While we’re all well aware of the damage that Covid has levelled on the airline industry, the latest data from analytics company OAG makes for sobering reading.

The report highlights that current trends will take occupied seats to below 50 million a week by year end, which is around 54 per cent below the 106 million reported in the last week of 2019.

According to Bloomberg, statistics show that a massive one in three airline routes has been lost due to Covid-19, down to 33,000 in November from nearly 50,000 routes globally.

Unprofitable routes, usually to less-populated destinations, have been first to go. It reflects the bleak reality that carriers have to face as demand is not expected to recover until 2024, and has led to fleet downsizing and mass layoffs. Simultaneously, these difficult decisions put entire communities at risk of being cut off.

Bloomberg reports: “With borders effectively shut from Europe to New Zealand, the bulk of the world’s dropped routes are inevitably cross-border. But thousands of domestic legs have also been axed, reflecting the pressure airlines face at home as they cut jobs and retire aircraft to find a cost base that reflects their shrunken situation.”

In October, Air Astana’s CEO Peter Foster told Business Traveller that there will be at least half a dozen destinations across Russia, South East Asia, and Europe that the airline “may never fly to again”. The Kazakh carrier saw capacity in the first nine months of 2020 fall 48 per cent year-on-year.

Western Europe is now at only 30 per cent of its January 2020 levels, making it the poorest performing regional market in the world.

The UK is particularly badly hit. It started the year with 1,396 airport pairs both at home and abroad, since plummeting by two thirds to just 448 in mid-November. It is now at just 20 per cent of its pre Covid-19 capacity levels – some 121 airlines operated scheduled flights to the UK in January, a figure that is now down to 75.

Easyjet expects to fly “no more than” 20 per cent of capacity this quarter (the popular London Gatwick-Toulouse route is not running from early January to mid February, for example), while British Airways has paused operations entirely out of Gatwick.

Another factor is the number of airlines to have gone under in the past ten months. The collapse of Flybe in March, for instance, has left a considerable gap in the UK’s domestic flight network, which has seen the number of routes drop from 161 to 72 since the start of the year, according to The Telegraph. The national airline association Airlines UK says they may never restart.

In Asia, Singapore Airlines has recorded its biggest ever quarterly loss and retired 26 aircraft and Cathay Pacific will fly under 50 per cent of its pre-crisis capacity in 2021.

Business Traveller notes that “while many routes have been cut due to plummeting demand, carriers have also been exploring less conventional, point-to-point routes which previously did not exist.

“United Airlines, for instance, will add 28 flights to Florida from US cities such as Indianapolis and Milwaukee as demand rises for leisure destinations closer to home. However, these incremental gains have done little to make up for the industry’s widespread cuts around the world.”

“Aviation has been devastated by the pandemic and has essentially never had the opportunity to recover,” said Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK and Karen Dee, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, in a joint statement.

“A ban on international travel means airlines and airports, already hamstrung by quarantine, are closed businesses and will require financial support now – which other sectors like hospitality have received – alongside a comprehensive restart package.”

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