With summer right around the corner, most of us are now looking forward to the holidays and the travel and aviation industries were among the worst hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. In March 2020, when news of COVID-19 began to spread, the immediate response of most countries was to impose restrictions on the borders, suspending flights and limiting the entry to the country only to citizens. This phase was the major hit for airline companies, I’m sure everybody has a nightmare-like experience from this period, being on the phone with some customer service, trying to change the flight dates or get the money back. Then the summer came, and some countries slowly began to relax some restrictions, particularly to favour inbound tourism. Still, with so much uncertainty around entry regulations and quarantine, in many cases people preferred to explore their own countries. The same uncertainty has been a characteristic of traveling in the last 9 months: entry regulations changing on a weekly basis, sometimes overnight, the fear of being stuck in quarantine in another country, the unpleasantness of taking a PCR test before each flight.
All of this is clear from the chart on the left, which represents the 7-day rolling average number of flights, in 2019, 2020 and 2021 YTD, as tracked by the website flightradar24.com. Over the last two months, the number of flights has been picking up again and we are now at the post-pandemic peak, even though we are still some 30% below the 2019 level.
Booking Holdings, the company behind popular online travel agencies such as Booking.com, Kayak.com, Cheapflights, and Rentalcars.com, released their Q1 earnings at the beginning of May. The earnings calls depict an improving situation, in particular in the US and, to a lesser extent, in Europe.
The prospects for the industry are now optimistic: as the rollout of the vaccines is speeding up and, in many cases, even the younger population has already access to it, more and more countries are announcing that they are now open to vaccinated travellers. The European Union has announced the rollout of the EU Digital COVID Certificate from July 1st, to facilitate the free movement of citizens who are either fully vaccinated, have a negative test result or have recovered from COVID-19 over the previous 6 months.
Most airlines are cautiously positive on the outlook despite the recent challenges, even though they do not expect a full recovery to pre-pandemic levels in 2021. The focus is on the domestic and interregional travel recovery, while we might still have to wait a bit longer for that dream vacation on the other side of the world.
Next week, we will look at the other side of air transportation, air freight.
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