Coronavirus: Airlines to fly 40 million fewer seats in first months of 2020

March 03, 2020
coronavirus airlines
Image: US CDC.

Airlines globally are expected to operate 40 million fewer seats in the first four months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019 as a result of the coronavirus, with Asian markets badly savaged.

A new analysis of scheduled airline capacity by airline data expert OAG shows domestic capacity in China is recovering with 2.9 million seats returning to the market, up by 49.6 percent since February 24.

The added capacity in the huge Chinese domestic market outweighed the capacity reduction in other markets but the recovery has not been shared by its neighbors.

The reduction of 40.1 million seats represents a fall in global capacity over the four months of about 2.2 percent but traffic on key Asian routes has reportedly collapsed.

Hong Kong has been particularly badly hit with a further 22 percent reduction in seat capacity since February 24 bringing the total fall since January 20 to 71 percent.

South Korea also saw a 21 percent reduction in the past week, Taipei was down by 17.2 percent while Japan, buoyed by its massive domestic market, saw a more modest 2.2 percent fall.

Cathay Pacific, Korean Air, Asiana and Eva Airways have seen seat capacity cuts of 20 percent in the past week, according to the analysis by OAG’s John Grant.

Singapore Airlines no longer appears in OAG’s weekly South-East Asian weekly top 10 list after cutting capacity a further 5 percent to bring total cuts since January 20 to 12.5 percent.

Low-cost carrier AirAsia cut seats by almost 9 percent since February 24, according to the analysis, while Malaysia Airlines was down 3.7 percent.

The exception has been Indonesia but that may change now coronavirus has been reported there.

“Airlines such as Lion Air, Citilink Indonesia and Batik Air have all added capacity in the last seven weeks; if that growth can hold with a wider outbreak of the virus is yet to be seen,’’ Grant said.

In Europe, according to Grant, the recent coronavirus outbreak in Northern Italy did not appear to have impacted total capacity at a country level.

But he noted airlines were still adjusting schedules and re-accomodating passengers from some canceled services before removing flights from their systems.

“Some airlines have sought to add capacity to existing routes across their networks, taking advantage of expected increases in demand over the approaching Easter holiday period,’’ he said.

The OAG seat analysis came as the International Air Transport Association called for the rules governing airport slots to be suspended.

About 43 percent of passengers depart from 200 slot co-ordinated airports worldwide and slot allocation rules mean airlines must use 80 percent of the allocated slots or lose them in the next equivalent season.

However, regulators can relax these requirements in extraordinary circumstances and IATA says that’s what airlines now face.

It pointed to one carrier experiencing a 26 percent reduction in year-on-year capacity across their entire operation, carriers in some markets reporting 50 percent “no shows” and softening future bookings.

“IATA research has shown that traffic has collapsed on key Asian routes and that this is rippling throughout the air transport network globally, even between countries without major outbreaks of COVID-19,” IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac said.

“There are precedents for previous suspension of the slot use rules and we believe the circumstances again calls for a suspension to be granted.

“We are calling for regulators worldwide to help the industry plan for today’s emergency, and the future recovery of the network, by suspending the slot use rules on a temporary basis.“

Global coronavirus cases have now topped 90,000 with more than 3,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The number of cases is growing more quickly outside China, the source of the infection, and the World Health Organisation has warned the world is in “uncharted territory”.

WHO boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said outbreaks in South Korea, Italy, Iran and japan were of the greatest concern.

“We are in uncharted territory — we have never seen before a respiratory pathogen that is capable of community transmission, but at the same time which can also be contained with the right measures,” he told a news briefing in Geneva.

Iran has mobilized 300,000 teams to conduct nationwide door-to-door coronavirus checks as the death toll rose to 66 Monday and number of confirmed cases jumped to more than 1500.

South Korea reported almost 600 additional infections on Monday to bring the total to more than 4300.

In the US, the death toll in Washington State reached six as the number of cases across the country grew to about 75.

In Australia, the number of cases grew to 33 and a government minister has warned people not to shake hands or kiss as the country experienced its first death and person-to-person transmissions.

Authorities are seeking people who flew into Sydney on a Qatar Airways aircraft on February 23 with a woman from Iran who developed symptoms the next day and tested positive to the coronavirus.