An Iberia airline aircraft. / EFE

Airlines not expected to recover from Covid pandemic until 2023

The situation in peak season will be similar to 2019, but the autumn is looking uncertain and the price of fuel could mean airlines have to increase their fares

JOSÉ ANTONIO BRAVO Madrid

The international air travel industry now believes the recovery from the pandemic will come in 2023, not this year, because although the prospects for this summer are good, the autumn is still uncertain. In August, flights worldwide are expected to be 92% full on average (94% in Spain) but there is still some way to go.

Figures from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) show that the demand for flights was 78.7% higher in April than in the same month last year, but was still 37.2% lower than pre-pandemic levels.

For airlines, the risk is that if they increase the number of flights available the market may not follow suit and they will be running at a loss, says Romà Andreu, an aviation expert at the EAE Business School.

Reduced staffing levels

In fact, what happened a few weeks ago was quite the opposite. A sudden increase in bookings posed a challenge to airlines and airports because staffing levels had been reduced during the pandemic. Now, they are trying to increase staff numbers again, but the time needed for training and security clearance means this is likely to take three or four months.

The airports most affected so far have been in London, Berlin, Frankfurt and Amsterdam, where some airlines have cancelled hundreds of flights due to lack of staff.

Long queues

In Spain there have been long queues since Easter, and more than 1% of flights have been cancelled. The Airlines Association (ALA) is urging the government to increase the number of border control officials, because Brexit has meant that British travellers are now subject to extra checks and this can slow the passport control process down considerably.

Despite these problems the Aena airport authority expects passenger traffic this year to be 75%-85% of the 2019 level, and that was a record year.

Vicente Segura, a partner in the Deloitte consultancy, says the potential problems include inflation, the energy crisis, the war in Ukraine and the economic situation.

Rising fuel costs

The first to recover will be low-cost operators, says David Hoh, a partner in KPMG España, because national airlines rely more on long-haul and business trips.

Another headache, more medium-term than short term because of hedging contracts, is the rising cost of fuel as it is twice the price it was a year ago. Unless something changes, the IATA estimates that this could increase the industry losses by 2%. This, plus the rising inflation rate, is leading some airlines to raise their fares, which in April were on average 14% lower than in 2019.