Can Airlines Survive the Coronavirus Crisis?

Chinese students living in Thailand wear protective suits as a measure of protection against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) as they walk at the Suvarnabhumi Airport before boarding a repatriation flight, in Bangkok, Thailand April 21, 2020. REUTERS/Jo
April 22, 2020 Topic: economy Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: AirlinesCoronavirusCOVID-19PandemicAir Travel

Can Airlines Survive the Coronavirus Crisis?

And will they play a role in the post-pandemic world?


Airlines face an unprecedented international crisis in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that the global industry will lose US$252 billion in 2020. Many airlines are cutting up to 90% of their flight capacity. On March 1, more than two million people in the US were flying per day. A month on, fewer than 100,000 people are going through airport security daily.

Some climate activists have welcomed the emptied skies, pointing to the dramatic fall in carbon emissions. But others worry that the bounce back and attempts to take back some of the losses might mean that an opportunity for fundamental, sustained change may be missed.


In the US, a federal government US$50 billion bailout fund – part of which will fund cash grants going towards airline workers, and the other part loans for the airlines themselves – was rolled out piecemeal in March, with revisions announced on April 14.

More than 200 airlines applied. American Airlines will get US$5.8 billion, Delta US$5.4 billion, and Southwest US$3.2 billion, among others. Donald Trump, the US president, stated that the airline bailout was needed to return the industry to “good shape” and was “not caused by them”. Another US$4 billion is available for cargo airlines and US$3 for contractors.

In the UK, it was initially announced that no industry-wide bailout would be offered. Instead, the industry would have to rely on broader aid packages covering 80% of salaries (below a cap) for furloughed employees. But subsequently, the government quickly gave easyJet a £600 million loan (US$740 million). Flybe, a smaller regional or “secondary” airline with pre-crisis financial issues, was not bailed out and collapsed. Many money-making routes Flybe ran have since been picked up by others.

Continental Europe is in worse shape. Italy has re-nationalised Alitalia, forming a new state-owned entity and investing €600 million (US$650 million). France has indicated it will do whatever it takes to bailout Air France/KLM (France owns 15% and the Dutch 13%), with a possible €6 billion bailout package (US$6.5 billion).

Meanwhile, Australia’s Qantas secured a A$1 billion loan (US$660 million). Debt-laden Virgin Australia, meanwhile, was denied a A$1.4 billion loan (US$880 million) and has subsequently plunged into voluntary administration. Singapore Airlines, however, got a US$13 billion aid package.

The airline industry has faced many crises before – 9/11 and the 2010 Icelandic volcano eruption, for example. But these pale in comparison to the economic hit that airlines are currently facing. Some are asking: can it recover? Is this an economic crisis that could reshape how we travel and live? Or will it turn out to be more of a pause, before returning to business as usual? And what role does the climate crisis play in all this – how will sustainability figure in any rebooting of the industry going forward?

We are all experts in the airline industry. Darren Ellis (Lecturer in Air Transport Management) considers these questions first, looking at the industry’s structure and response. Jorge Guira (Associate Professor in Law and Finance) then explores bailout options and likely future scenarios for the industry. Finally, Roger Tyers (Research Fellow in Environmental Sociology) considers how the industry might just be at a turning point in terms of how it tackles climate change.

This article is part of Conversation Insights
The Insights team generates long-form journalism derived from interdisciplinary research. The team is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects aimed at tackling societal and scientific challenges.

A global problem

Darren Ellis, Lecturer in Air Transport Management

Most of the global airline industry is currently grounded. Although some routes are still managing to operate, and there is evidence of a gradual domestic air market rebound in China, 2020 will certainly not see the 4.6 billion annual passengers of 2019. The long-term trend of ever-rising air passenger numbers year on year has been brought to a dramatic and rapid halt.

What this means for the global airline industry is vividly on display at airports around the globe as terminals remain empty and aircraft occupy any available parking space.

Like the predominately national response to the virus, so the airline industry is also seeing a wide range of policies and practices tailored and implemented almost exclusively at the national level. This means that some airlines, thanks to well-chosen national policies, will fare better, while others will flounder.

This is because beyond the multilateral single air market of Europe, the global industry remains firmly structured on a bilateral system. This web of country to country air service agreements (ASAs) is basically made up of trade treaties which governments sign with one another to determine the level of air access each is willing to permit. Even in Europe, the single air market essentially acts as one nation internally, while externally, individual European countries continue to deal with many countries on a bilateral basis.

The bilateral system is based on a bundle of rules and restrictions, including airline ownership (typically, a minimum of 51% of an airline must be owned by people from the country where the airline is based), national control, single airline citizenship and home base requirements. This effectively locks airlines into a single country or jurisdiction.

Despite this structure, global cooperation in aviation is strong, particularly across safety standardisation, but less so on the economic front. A lot of this cooperation happens via the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the industry’s specialised UN agency. Meanwhile, the IATA supports and lobbies on behalf of member airlines.

Likewise, international mergers and acquisitions are rare – aside from in Europe, where partial mergers have created dual and multiple brands like Air France/KLM. Where single airline brands have been created with cross border mergers – such as LATAM Airlines in South America – national aircraft registration and other restrictions remain in place, thereby reflecting multiple airlines in these respects.

Consequently, national responses will be front and centre as the industry responds to the current pandemic. In countries where a single flag carrier is based, such as Thailand and Singapore, governments are unlikely to let their airlines fail. While in others, where multiple airlines operate, a level playing field of assistance and support is more likely, even if outcomes differ widely. This is not to say that all airlines will necessarily survive what is likely to be an extended U-shaped crisis, unlike the more V-shaped crises of the past, such as 9/11 and the 2008 global financial crisis.

The national structure of the industry also highlights why major airlines failing is relatively rare. Yes, airlines have merged in domestic air markets like the US, and individual brands have disappeared as a result, but few major airlines have gone out of business because they failed. Even Swissair, which was famously bankrupt and defunct in late 2001, soon reappeared as Swiss International Airlines.

And so, although airline brands have come and gone, the industry had remained on a growth path for decades. It will take time to recover from the pandemic. Some airlines will fail. But widespread changes to the industry’s structure are unlikely to occur. People will, of course, need and want to travel by air again when this pandemic is over. Which airlines survive – and which go on to thrive – will largely depend on how successful individual countries’ economic support packages turn out to be.

Bailout essentials

Jorge Guira, Associate Professor in Law and Finance

The global outcomes of the crisis, then, are firmly anchored in national responses. The airline industry is cyclical: it is used to peaks and valleys. Bailouts have repeatedly been vital for airlines, so many countries have some sort of precedent to go by.

In any bailout, the key question is whether this is a solvency or liquidity crisis. Solvency means that the airline will be very unlikely to ever remain financially viable. Liquidity means that the airline has a high risk of running out of cash flow but should be solvent soon, if supported. Assessing this is sometimes complex.

Cash is king. “Streamlining” – a fancy word for cost cutting – can help. Unencumbered assets such as aeroplanes can be sold, or used as collateral for loans. But many planes are often leased, so this may be problematic.

Existing contracts must be reviewed. Breach of covenants, which are legally binding promises to do (or to refrain from doing) things in a certain way, may need to be waived. For instance, lease agreements for the planes often require flights to carry on, and business as usual is suspended at present. Other agreements require flights to maintain landing spaces in airports – leading to the “ghost planes” many were appalled by earlier on in the crisis, and that still continue.

Certain financial tests may not be met, such as how much debt there is compared to earnings. These can alarm creditors. And this can lead to deterioration in bond credit ratings, reflecting increased financial distress. Other triggers may also arise. Defaulting on one financial contract usually requires informing other creditors. This can trigger defaults on other agreements, creating a domino effect.

So renegotiating operating and financial contracts is crucial. Airlines may have to pick and choose who to pay first. Unions must be kept happy, and other stakeholders must focus on recovery.

All this means that state bailouts, help and other guarantees are crucial for the industry to survive. In the US, for example, net operating losses are carried forward and used to shield revenues and offset these from tax for when things return to normal.

If liquidity is the problem, the real issue is time: how long will it take for the airline to get back on its feet and resume flying more normally? If solvency is the problem, the company cannot survive the demand collapse it is facing. The COVID-19 pandemic is such a fraught time for airlines because of the difficulty in predicting when the crisis will end. This can complicate determining whether it is a more temporary liquidity crisis or a deeper solvency concern.

After 9/11, the airline industry completely shut down in the US. People witnessing the horrifying scenes of the Twin Towers’ collapse were hardly eager to board a plane. So, the government chose to step in to restore confidence. And it did so, successfully, by offering aid including loans and used warrants, which involves investing in airlines when the stock is at a reduced or rock bottom price and waiting for it to go up again. The US government’s COVID-19 financial rescue package parallels this approach.

The US approach is noteworthy because of its size and scale, and the fact that it is built on the 9/11 case and has been modified for the unique present circumstances. It is also an interesting counterpoint to the strategy of the strongly free market-oriented UK, and Australia, which has been more restrained in its approach.

Airline norms suggest that 25% of revenues should be kept in case of any emergency, but this has tended not to happen recently. Corporate earnings have generally not been held for a rainy day, and now that rainy day has arrived. This creates a classic moral hazard problem: many airlines seem to act as if they are too important to fail, because in the end, they believe they will be bailed out. And regulation does not otherwise hold any excesses in check.

Compounding this, some US airlines have recently been accumulating cheap debt, due to low interest rates and lots of credit availability. The five big US carriers, instead of paying off debt, have been spending 96% of available cash on stock buybacks. Many question whether airlines should be bailed out in these circumstances. Limits on paying dividends, buyback of stock, and other terms would logically apply here, as in the earlier US bailout measures announced in March.

While the US case may provide a helpful initial focus, the UK approach is likely to be highly influential, perhaps more so given the reduced resource level – and greater level of climate awareness – there. As Darren pointed out earlier, one model does not fit all but this may offer a useful comparative framework for other approaches that favour national champions or nationalisations.

The UK is reportedly considering partial nationalisation, such as in the case of British Airways. British Airways has furloughed 35,000 employees, with many pay packets supported by the government – for now. British Airways appears better placed to cherry pick key routes, assets and companies as it ranks in the top group for liquidity.

If Virgin Atlantic were to collapse, its size means it may fit in the too important to fail category. It appears that bailout talks are ongoing but Richard Branson’s life as an offshore UK resident, and Delta’s ownership of a 49% stake, present potential political clouds. Questions about whether it should get state aid given current crisis conditions also arise. This is generally forbidden, although the EU has temporarily indicated a COVID-19 relaxation of the rules. No environmental strings have apparently been attached, as former EU officials and others have suggested should be the case.

Overall, the survival of the global industry therefore depends on bailouts, not only to keep airlines afloat but also for the wider travel and leisure ecosystem.

The lack of of sustainability conditions in UK and indeed US bailouts appears to be mirrored globally. But a Green New Deal in a second recovery phase of aid could provide this. And greater awareness of the issue thanks to the likes of Greta Thunberg, an increased culture of working from home, and ongoing measures to increase accountability and reporting of emissions means this aspect may well play a vital role in the repackaging of airlines going into the future. Much of it begins with how emissions targeting interacts with the COVID-19 crisis.

Read more: Coronavirus: how economic rescue plans can set the global economy on a path to decarbonisation

Aviation and climate change

Roger Tyers, Research Fellow in Environmental Sociology

As Jorge says, for the growing number of people concerned by aviation’s rising carbon emissions, this pandemic may be a rare chance to do things differently. When air travel is eventually unpaused, can we set it on a more sustainable trajectory?

Even before this pandemic hit, aviation faced increasing pressure in the fight against climate change. While other sectors are slowly decarbonising, international aviation is forecast to double passenger numbers by 2037, meaning its share of global emissions may increase tenfold to 22% by 2050.

Most flights are taken by a relatively well-off minority, often for leisure reasons, and of questionable necessity. We might wonder whether it is wise to devote so much of our remaining carbon “allowance” to aviation over sectors like energy or food which – as we are now being reminded – are fundamental to human life.

Regulators at the UN’s ICAO have responded to calls for climate action with their Carbon Offset and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) scheme. Under this, international aviation can continue to expand, as long as growth above a 2020 baseline is “net-neutral” in terms of emissions.

While critics cite numerous problems with it, the idea is to reduce emissions above the 2020 baseline through a combination of fuel efficiencies, improvements in air traffic management and biofuels. The remaining, huge shortfall in emissions will be covered by large-scale carbon offsetting. Last year, IATA estimated that about 2.5 billion tonnes of offsets will be required by CORSIA between 2021 and 2035.

This plan has been thrown into disarray by the COVID-19 crisis. The emissions baseline for CORSIA was supposed to be calculated based on 2019-20 flight figures. But given that the industry has come to a standstill – demand may take a 38% hit in 2020 – that baseline will be much lower than expected. So once flights resume, emissions growth post-2020 will be much higher than anyone predicted. Airlines will need to purchase many more carbon offset credits, raising operating costs and passing these onto customers.

Airlines trying to get back on their feet will be hostile to any such additional burdens, and will probably seek methods to recalculate the baseline in their favour. But for environmentalists, this might be an opportunity to strengthen CORSIA, which despite its flaws is the only current framework for tackling aviation emissions globally.

Some still consider CORSIA to be an elaborate sideshow. The real game-changer for sustainable aviation would be fuel tax reform, which might receive more scrutiny when attention shifts onto how to repay the eye-watering levels of public debt incurred during lockdown.

Since the 1944 Chicago Convention, which gave birth to ICAO and the modern aviation industry, putting VAT on flight tickets and tax on kerosene jet fuel has been effectively illegal. This is the primary reason why flying is relatively cheap compared to other transport modes, and arguably why the industry has under-invested in research into cleaner fuels.

With the most-polluting form of transport enjoying the lowest taxes, this regime has long been questionable in terms of emissions. It may soon become untenable in terms of tax justice, too. In 2018, France’s Gilets Jaunes movement was partly motivated by anger at increased fuel tax for cars and vans, while air travel continued to benefit from historic tax exemptions. This anger may return when governments inevitably raise taxes to repay their multi-billion-dollar COVID-19-related debts.

Campaigners are already demanding that any airline bailout be linked to tax reform, and there is huge potential there. Leaked EU papers in 2019 suggest that ending kerosene tax exemptions in Europe could raise €27 billion (US$29 billion) in revenues every year. Such sources of revenue may soon become irresistible, and national governments might seek to collect them unilaterally, with or without a coordinated ICAO response.

Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister, once said that no politician facing election would ever vote to end cheap air travel. But – to state the obvious – these are unprecedented times, and public attitudes to flying may well change.

On the demand side, once borders reopen, there could be a short-term travel boom as postponed flights are rebooked and stranded people fly home. But even after an official virus “all-clear”, those considering holidays may think twice before sharing cramped plane cabins with strangers. Business travellers, crucial to airline profits, may find that they’ve got so used to using Zoom, they don’t need always to fly to meetings in person.

As members of the industry admit, by the time passengers return to air travel in significant numbers, the airlines, routes and prices they find may look very different. Governments will face huge industry pressure to safeguard jobs and return to business as usual as soon as possible. But managed properly, this could be the start of a just and sustainable transition for aviation.

The future’s up in the air

All three of us feel the airline industry is at a key turning point. The size and scale of bailouts will vary. Government political will and philosophy, access to capital, and the viability of the industry itself are key factors that will inform whether a company is worth saving.

Any future must be based on the premise of preserving economic vibrancy while reducing climate risk. But not all governments will factor this in.

Events are moving fast, with Emirates in Dubai starting to test passengers for COVID-19 before boarding. Meanwhile, easyJet is considering social distancing on planes as part of a “de-densification” policy, with fewer passengers and higher prices, albeit across more routes.

Longer term, there are various ways this could play out. All depend upon the duration of the crisis and the confluence of political, legal and economic factors.

It is possible that market structure remains unchanged, with ownership of airlines staying relatively stable, supported by bailouts. Under this business-as-usual scenario, sustainability would incrementally be enhanced through airlines retiring older, less carbon efficient planes and replacing them with better ones. But this scenario is subject to tremendous uncertainty.

Or, sustainability might become more important after the crisis, thanks to increased environmental awareness, demand loss, and new green investment. This would take place at different speeds, with Europe perhaps being more proactive through government incentives and serious emissions targeting. The US would lag behind, but making some advances due to increased stakeholder concerns. In this scenario, there is some scaling down of travel to meet demand, which is reduced. Increased sustainable investment emerges. Due to partial recovery, a new normal emerges.

It is also possible that prolonged, severe shortage of capital and an awareness of the climate crisis could, hypothetically, lead to massive change. But governments’ concern for jobs is likely to crowd out environmental concerns. Political forces on the left and right would have to mend fences and agree that, in a depression-like scenario, a new world is needed, not just a new normal.

This article by Darren Ellis, Jorge Guira, and Roger Tyers first appeared in The Conversation on April 4, 2020.

Darren Ellis owns Qantas Airways (QAN) shares. He is a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society (MRAeS).

Roger Tyers is an unpaid member of the FlightFree2020 campaign.

Jorge Guira does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Image: Reuters.