Aviation expert and former flight attendant Simon Marton is analyzing what’s next for the airlines after a disastrous 2020 as a result of the COVID pandemic.
How quickly things can change. One minute you can be soaring, looking out of the windows at 35,000 ft on endless panoramas, and barely a couple of months later you’re like the B747 and A380 fleets laying abandoned and desolate in long parked rows, attracting dust and dirt. The queens of the skies are now silent and stripped of their crowns. Obsolete.
It seems that the airlines have been caught most foul of the current times. Around the beginning of the year, if a national airline went under, it was headline news.
Now it’s so regular, the mainstream media don’t seem to report it too much. Perhaps some operators have actually taken advantage of the current season and treated this as an opportune time to slash what they can and hang it all on the convenient coat-hook of that virus?
I won’t name and shame; you know who you are.
The airlines are traditionally run to the hilt on expenditure. Some routes wash their own faces, others are kept as an operational or legal necessity, while others are in such demand that the non-revenue/ standby queue is almost as large as the customer one.
It’s understandable then, that to run an airline is a costly undertaking. Partners in law-firms were rubbing their hands: there was always plenty of work here.
Winter in Narnia – When crap hit the fan
Loyalty. Brand loyalty. Customer experience. Staff morale. Authenticity. Integrity. Reward programs. It was spring in Narnia. Then the wicked queen took away the joy with one sweep of her wand. Furloughs. Layoffs. Recruitment freezes. Downsizing. Review of all spend. It is now always winter.
Mothballed planes, once regal and noisy, are assets with nowhere to go. While it’s encouraging to see established charters announcing new summer holiday routes for 2021, and scheduled low-costs expanding their horizons, the sheer logistics of bringing ‘planes back to their former bases is an administrative and operational hurdle in itself.
It can be done; it just needs an enormous amount of focussed energy.
Some airlines have seen the economic value in switching a stronger focus onto cargo operations. Fair play to them for doing the obvious.
In the States, we saw the CARES Act introduced to give airlines some sort of financial relief package. It runs out imminently.
The mental health effects on airline personnel are immense, just as with anyone else in any ‘normal’ employment. Many thought they were in it for the long-haul (pun intended).
In the UK, we have seen charitable organisations set up with names like Project Wingman, Pilot Pals and Aviation Action, with the aim of providing free support services to assist ex-engineers, pilots, flight attendants and other aviation employees.
What next for the airlines?
Of course, this is conjecture but realistically what can we expect to see?
Pre-pandemic levels of traffic
Well, it could go a number of ways. People can be quick to forget, and in two years’ time (2023), there has been talk of a return to pre-pandemic levels of traffic and customer numbers. For the commercial airline operators who are naturally risk-averse with regards to safety anyway, will they be willing to run the risk of being stung again?
New approaches to airline operations
I think there will be a streamlining of services, a reduction in slots, a general reluctance to run risks of flying half-empty jets across the globe, when it might prove financially more astute to reduce services so that an aircraft might actually fly with most if not all seats occupied. If a slot is available, does it make business sense to acquire it?
Will the full service carriers for example want to see ‘bums on seats’ (British expression denoting slashed fares) to ensure as full a vessel as possible, or hike up the prices to ensure a full C-class or even F-class at premium fares, with M-class levels a bonus?
Is there even going to be a demand for premium cabins, anything like it was? If people can do their work remotely and quite successfully from the comfort of their homes, will there be any need to cross the continents for a handshake that you can’t actually give?
There may well be more code-sharing between operators. Makes sense to split the bill and use each other’s marketing.
More airlines will be absorbed into the One World, Star Alliance or SkyTeam partnerships/ alliances. Why? Because it apparently makes business sense.
Pilot shortage (again?)
The challenges are that industry-induced early retirement will see the airlines lacking thousands of highly experienced veteran pilots (captains and senior first officers). Will it be enough to rely on pilots who have either held on for their skills to be requested once more, or start to use fresh newly-qualified blood?
There will be others still who have had enough of the airline world’s fluctuations and simply moved on, to become either plumbers, pig farmers or funeral directors. (Those professions your parents probably recommended.)
Onset of soaring training costs
Training costs will soar for the airlines wanting to restart business as usual, not just because of ‘refresher training’, but also for all personnel across the board. That’s way before a customer has even arrived at the airport. Talking of which….
The airport experience
The airport experience will become even more of a hi-tech hurdle for pax. If you think it was soulless before, consider this: we as a society in the western world alone have become accustomed to changing over to e-platforms like Zoom and Teams.
My prediction, based on what I have come across so far, is that technology will form a much greater part of the airport journey, with biometrics and digital advances at the forefront.
It will be something akin to those sci-fi movies of recent, where everything is blinding white and you touch gadgets in the wall to be allowed access anywhere, before a robot arrests you. (Nothing like Rome airport in the seventies with men in suits smoking Peter Stuyvesants at the bar, and classic airliners actually visible on the ramp.)
Factor in the costs of oil, marketing, engineering, airport and handling expenses, re-training, re-branding, updating technological advances and you can see how the airlines are going to be up against it.
Flying will come back
People will still want holidays abroad, still want to see family members, attend important events and even travel for its own sake.
For the general public who may wonder what all the fuss is about, then they may wish to consider how empty the supermarkets might look without bananas, melons and mangoes.
Those aircraft travelling through the night provide mail, fresh imported produce and our Amazon packages; in other words, they are a vital link in the logistics chain.
The story of Narnia
So, the airlines. Let me end allegorically. We know the story of Narnia isn’t just about a wardrobe. In every good story, there is a villain and a hero. The hero stumbles and battles every hardship before coming through. The villain is then humiliated in defeat. Ssshh, can anyone hear an APU starting?
I think spring is on the way….
Simon Marton, Aviation Journalist
Aviation Expert and Journalist Simon J Marton lives in the rolling hills above Bath, Somerset, England with his family and various animals. He used to work in the airline industry for 5 UK airlines and now does something completely different, having stumbled on law, housing and drum-teaching on the way. He has a passion for encouraging and forging new paths, believing that life should be an adventure. Writing is just a part of that journey, and he has a special interest in male-identity and mental health. Marton is also the author of the popular book Journey of a Reluctant Air Steward.
Featured Image: Mono Lake, California. CaptainJetson.com