Coronavirus: Airlines cancel thousands of flights

Ryanair plane

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Thousands of flights have been cancelled worldwide as airlines struggle to cope with a slump in demand caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

British Airways and Ryanair have both stopped all services to and from Italy until next month as the country goes into lockdown.

Norwegian Air has said it will cut about 3,000 flights in the next three months, about 15% of its capacity.

It also plans to temporarily lay off “a significant share of its workforce”.

“We have initiated formal consultations with our unions regarding temporary layoffs for flying crew members as well as employees on the ground and in the offices,” said chief executive Jacob Schram.

EasyJet has cancelled all of its flights to and from Italy for the next two days, and is in the process of reworking its schedule.

Whilst the restrictions on travel to Italy and China have meant some services have stopped completely, there has also been a general fall in demand as holiday-makers put their plans on hold and firms instruct staff to limit travel.

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Australia’s Qantas is reducing international flights by nearly 25%

Ghost flights

Some airlines had continued to operate near-empty flights in order to protect their rights to take-off and landing slots. Under EU “use it or lose it” rules they must run services on busy routes or forfeit them to other operators.

However, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen has announced that airlines will be allowed to keep their slots even if they were not flying routes.

“This is a temporary measure, and this temporary measure helps both our industry, but it also helps our environment,” she said.

“It will relieve the pressure on the aviation industry and in particular, on smaller airline companies. But it will also decrease emissions by avoiding so-called ghost flights.”

Survival threat

Earlier on Tuesday, Korean Air warned the coronavirus outbreak could threaten its survival.

In a memo sent to employees, Woo Kee-hong, Korean Air’s president, said the airline could not predict how long the crisis would last.

“But if the situation continues for a longer period, we may reach the threshold where we cannot guarantee the company’s survival,” he said in the memo, which was seen by Reuters.

Australia’s Qantas airline said it would reduce international flights by nearly 25% as it sees demand fall from passengers worried about the coronavirus.

Qantas and its budget airline Jetstar will reduce operations for the next six months.

ACI Europe, which represents European airports, said its “initial assessment” was that passenger numbers between January and March will drop 14% due to the coronavirus.

“The Covid-19 epidemic is turning into a shock of unprecedented proportions for our industry,” said director general Olivier Jankovec.

Holiday industry plea

As well as airlines, the wider travel sector is also facing hardship, and UK travel industry lobby group ABTA has called for “extraordinary measures” from government to help.

The group’s plea, ahead of Wednesday’s Budget, includes a request for tax holidays and loans for companies struggling as sales dry up.

John Hays, founder of Hays Travel, the company that bought 555 Thomas Cook shops, told BBC Radio 5 live that a recruitment freeze at the firm is likely.

“We’re looking at a recruitment freeze and other operational issues,” he said.

“We know this will be temporary, but it’s very important that we match the volume of income against costs, that’s what we do.”

In November last year, Hays Travel said it planned to hire an extra 1,500 staff – 200 for at its head office in Sunderland, 500 to handle foreign exchange, and an apprentice for each of its 737 branches.

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