Airline debt could rise to $550bn by year end, industry body warns

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

There are still large gaps in the financial aid needed to help airlines survive the Covid-19 crisis, the International Air Transport Association said on Tuesday.

IATA, the trade association for the world's airlines, expects the airline industry's global debt could rise to $550 billion by the end of the year - a 28% increase over debt levels at the start of 2020.

The average aid in Africa is around 1% ($0.8 billion) of the 2019 revenues of airlines on the continent compared to about 25% of their 2019 revenues received in aid by North American airlines, 15% received by European airlines and 10% of revenues received by airlines in the Asia-Pacific region.

Last week, Muhammad al Bakri, IATA's regional vice president for Africa and the Middle East, said that both state-owned and private domestic airlines in South Africa were in urgent need of help.
 
He said African governments could be shooting themselves in the foot in terms of economic recovery if airlines are not given adequate financial support.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Sunday night that domestic air travel may be phased in during lockdown Level 3, starting with business travel only. The dates for such a start must still be announced and airlines have responded with cautious optimism about the news.

"Even if one believes in capitalism and free markets, there are exceptional times which need exceptional measures," IATA CEO Alexandre de Juniac said during a webinar on Tuesday.

He explained that, due to governments' Covid-19 interventions - like flight bans and closing of borders - exceptional circumstances were created, which effectively blocked the airline industry as economic sector, from operating. Therefore, it should be appropriate to ask governments to intervene in helping the industry revive again.

Picture changed 'completely'

"Airlines were running completely out of cash and it was just a matter of weeks or days, so what we did was ask for emergency aid to be given to them. However, over half the relief provided by governments creates new liabilities. Less than 10% will add to airline equity," said De Juniac.

"It changes the financial picture of the industry completely. Paying off the debt owed governments and private lenders will mean that the crisis will last a lot longer than the time it takes for passenger demand to recover."

It is expected that about $67 billion of the new debt will be due to governments in the form of loans ($50 billion), deferred taxes ($5 billion) and loan guarantees ($12 billion). About $52 billion will be from commercial sources, including commercial loans ($23 billion), capital market debt ($18 billion), debt from new operating leases ($5 billion), and accessing existing credit facilities ($6 billion).

"After surviving the crisis, recovering to financial health will be the next challenge for many airlines. Post-pandemic control measures will make operations more costly. Fixed costs will have to be spread over fewer travelers. And investments will be needed to meet our environmental targets,” said De Juniac.

"Connectivity will be important to the recovery. Meaningful financial aid to airlines now makes economic sense. It will ensure that they are ready to provide job-supporting connectivity as economies re-open."

In December last year - before the cornavirus pandemic devastated the global airline industry, including in South Africa - IATA predicted that African airlines would likely suffer a loss of $200m (about R2.9bn) in 2020, similar to the loss expected for 2019.

Now IATA estimates that airlines in Africa have likely already lost in total about $6 billion (about R106 billion) due to the pandemic and related flight bans, placing about 3.1 million jobs in the aviation and related industries are at risk on the continent.

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