Airlines Start to Scrap U.K. Flights Following New Lockdown
(Bloomberg) -- Airlines kicked off 2021 by shrinking their already meager U.K. schedules, prompted by a new coronavirus lockdown and the prospect of further restrictions on travel abroad.
EasyJet Plc, Britain’s biggest discount carrier, pared back its flying program to prioritize essential connections between key U.K. cities and “a small number of international routes.” British Airways said it’ll keep crucial links open, while TUI AG on Tuesday halted all package holiday tours from the U.K. through mid-February, when the new lockdown is set to end.
A spokeswoman for Wizz Air Holdings Plc, which has been adding U.K. bases in an effort to emerge stronger from the pandemic, said it will review capacity to ensure that it remains appropriate to demand.
The fast-spreading virus strain that’s driven up U.K. case counts has also dashed airline-industry hopes of relief from 2020’s unrelenting downturn. Prime Minister Boris Johnson late Monday announced a new coronavirus lockdown that will keep most people at home until mid-February, when vaccines being rolled out are able to stem the worst infection rates since the start of the outbreak.
EasyJet had already reduced its schedule for next week by one-third and Ryanair Holdings Plc, Europe’s biggest discounter, by two-thirds, said John Grant, senior analyst at travel data provider OAG.
“Last night’s news will see those numbers go down further,” Grant said in an email. “Whilst the news is no surprise and most airlines and airports had been expecting this to happen, it is nevertheless another setback to the recovery.”
IAG SA-owned British Airways is reviewing its plans, a spokesman said.
TUI, the German tour operator with a large base of British customers, had already culled most of its U.K. program, with only some destinations including St. Lucia, Cuba and Aruba served. These trips have now been canceled.
Further restrictions on international travel are in the works, including talks with authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on coordinated curbs, U.K. Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said on LBC Radio.
The plans include requiring arriving passengers to present a negative coronavirus test, the Times newspaper reported, citing an unnamed former Downing Street official.
Johnson said late Monday that people should stay home as Britain wrestles with the fast-spreading strain. The government forbid all leisure travel and advised U.K. residents to check with carriers on arrangements for returning.
Some European Union countries are considering revising restrictions placed last month when the U.K. mutation began to receive attention.
Hungary lifted its flight ban with the U.K., while Swiss aviation authorities said that a Dec. 23 decision to bar incoming travel from Britain except for returning residents will be reviewed Wednesday.
A 4.6 billion-pound ($6.2 billion) aid package for businesses announced on Tuesday is geared toward smaller concerns and airlines won’t be eligible. Industry group Airlines UK called on the government for further support.
Disruption to carriers is unlikely to be as great as that suffered last spring, when fleets were grounded across the world. Luton, England-based EasyJet, which has operations across Europe, said the impact might be similar to a month-long lockdown in November, though schools remained open then.
Ryanair, with its large presence at London Stansted airport, said Tuesday that passenger traffic tumbled 66% during 2020. Even in December, the Dublin-based company was operating only 22% of its usual schedule. Wizz separately posted a 58% decline in annual traffic.
While airlines were braced for near-term disruption, the effects of the new lockdown would be magnified if it were to cause the industry to miss a second high season after last summer’s collapse, said HSBC analyst Andrew Lobbenberg.
“The next six weeks won’t be a make or break for any of the major airlines but several would be challenged if the summer recovery doesn’t happen,” Lobbenberg said. “At some stage in March and April they are going to want to see those inflows for summer bookings.”
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