$252bn lost as airlines lose flight

Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula said only flights transporting essential goods will be allowed to land in South Africa during the lockdown. Picture: Peter Abrahams
Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula said only flights transporting essential goods will be allowed to land in South Africa during the lockdown. Picture: Peter Abrahams

Government restrictions on flights following the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic have led to a 98% decline in airlines’ passenger transport income, says the International Air Travel Association (IATA).

The association this week said it expected a 38% contraction in the total miles flown by passengers, and that income from passenger flights would drop by around $252 billion.

As late as December last year, the IATA was still expecting this year’s income figure to grow by 4.1%, to $872 billion. It estimated that the number of passenger miles flown would increase from 4.5 billion (7.24 biilion kilometres) last year to 4.7 billion this year.

According to the association, Europe is the region that has been worst hit, with an expected 46% decline in passengers.

On January 26, there were 181 449 flights worldwide. Two months later, on March 26, that number had dropped to 104 585, according to the website Flightradar24, which monitors air traffic.

Two major airlines from the United Arab Emirates, Emirates and Etihad Airways, had already suspended their flights last week.

Glyn Hughes, international head of air transport at the IATA, said more than 1 million passenger flights worldwide had already been cancelled, up to an including June 30.

Forbes reported that, in the worst case scenario, total air traffic for the year would decline by 15.2%, and total passenger numbers by 65 million.

Two major airlines from the United Arab Emirates, Emirates and Etihad Airways, had already suspended their flights last week.

Other large airlines that have suspended 80% of their flights are Lufthansa (98%), Air France (90%), the International Airlines Group – which includes British Airways, Iberia and Vueling (80%), KLM (80%) and Virgin Atlantic (80%).

Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula this week said at a press conference that only flights transporting essential goods will be allowed to land in South Africa during the lockdown.

Read: The Covid-19 pandemic is a major threat to African aviation

Freight from high-risk countries such as China, the US and the UK will be subjected to strict sanitation procedures when offloading, and crew members will not be allowed to leave the plane.

Hughes said that passenger flights carry between 45% and 50% of cargo in their baggage compartments, which means that a significant percentage of air freight – about 30% worldwide – is no longer being transported.

The demand for goods has also shifted from vehicle parts and electrical components required for the running of factories to medicine, medical equipment, protective clothing and food.

“The demand for food and medical products has skyrocketed, and its made airlines realise they need to try and make their aircraft available to transport it.”

Delta, American Airlines and United Airlines, in the US, have already begun to make their passenger aircraft available for cargo transportation on an exclusive basis, while airlines including British Airways, Emirates and Lufthansa have started to make some of their passenger planes available for charter to carry cargo.

An unexpected side-effect of the ban on flights is that the industry’s carbon footprint will drop, at least temporarily.

Independent aviation analyst Joachim Vermooten told Rapport that the transportation of air freight is only profitable if the flight returns from its destination also carrying cargo.

“While restrictions are in place, there isn’t really reciprocal demand for freight, so the flight will still make a loss. Somebody will have to pay for the costs of the return flight.”

An unexpected side-effect of the ban on flights is that the industry’s carbon footprint will drop, at least temporarily.

The industry was responsible for 950 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions last year, accounting for 12% of all emissions in the transport industry.

The website EcoWatch has already reported that air pollution has declined considerably in countries including Italy, China and the US cities of Los Angeles, Seattle and New York.

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