The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a series of containment measures, in that, freedom of movement became heavily curtailed. Almost one year since the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, and nationwide lockdowns and travel restrictions remain largely in force. In consequence, the sharp contraction in demand for travel has pushed the aviation industry into a crisis, whose turnaround is fully dependent on successful herd immunity and easing of COVID-19 restrictions.

During April of last year, the aviation industry experienced the worst contraction in its long-standing history with a drop of 94.3 per cent in revenue passenger kilometres. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported that this coincided with the first full month of global lockdowns, when 75 per cent of countries had a ban on inbound flights. The Seat Load Factor, which measures the percentage of seating capacity occupied, also dropped. In the US, the load factor fell from the above 80 per cent pre-pandemic level, to a low point of 36.5 per cent during the second quarter of 2020. 

In response to the plunge in travel demand, industry players responded by cutting costs, including reducing staff and capacity, as liquidity buffers came under pressure. Even so, given the high proportion of unavoidable fixed costs within the industry, IATA estimated a cash burn of $51 billion during the second quarter of 2020 alone. Governments also stepped in during this aviation crisis, providing almost $200 billion of support through direct subsidies, loans, equity and cash injections as well as aid through wage subsidies and taxation.

Since the lows of April, the aviation industry is slowly inching towards a recovery. By the end of 2020, passenger traffic was still down by 66 per cent. According to the IATA, this contraction was eight times more than the fall in demand during the 12 months after the 9/11 attacks, the previous most severe aviation crisis. The demand for domestic travel, which fell to a lesser extent at the start of the pandemic, largely captures the pickup in travel so far. Meanwhile, international travel remains subdued, with load factors still at half the levels recorded before the outbreak. 

While the discovery of the COVID-19 vaccine was a clear catalyst for the industry, the emergence of new variants, first reported in the UK, South Africa and Brazil has hampered the recovery in international air travel. Renewed lockdowns and travel restrictions weighed down on the travel expectations for the first half of 2021, confirmed by a slowdown in booking trends since the start of the year. 

Evidently, a more sustainable recovery in the airline industry is dependent on a successful rollout of COVID-19 vaccination programs that would facilitate easing of cross-border travel restrictions. In the meantime, domestic travel demand is expected to continue to strengthen, and to shape 2021 returns for the airline industry. Leisure demand is expected to drive the initial rebound, with low cost carriers undoubtedly the first to benefit, given the implicitly shorter routes and better price offerings. Warmer weather in the summer months is also expected to slow down transmission and encourage more travelling. Business travel, on the other hand, is more dependent on the comeback of conferences and a stronger recovery in business operations to fund wider budgets for travel. 

The strong rebound in booking trends when covid-19 cases and travel restrictions eased, suggest that a successful vaccine rollout and pent up demand is likely to result in a steep recovery in travel demand. Legacy long haul carriers, stand to benefit from the comeback of international travel as the pandemic is brought under control, an inflection point in the current loss making industry. 

In the meantime, effective cooperation and a more digital, contactless and seamless process is required to boost travel confidence. The IATA, which expects air traffic to recover to pre-pandemic level in 2024, has proposed a Travel Pass, which incorporates a registry of health requirements, testing and vaccination centres and a lab app with test results or vaccination certificates. The idea going forward is to swap quarantine restrictions with a digital health passport that verifies and shares test and vaccination certificates, to safely restart travel. 

Disclaimer: This article was written by Rachel Meilak, CFA, equity analyst at Calamatta Cuschieri. The article is issued by Calamatta Cuschieri Investment Services Ltd which is licensed to conduct investment services business under the Investments Services Act by the MFSA and is also registered as a Tied Insurance Intermediary under the Insurance Distribution Act 2018.

For more information visit https://cc.com.mt/. The information, view and opinions provided in this article are being provided solely for educational and informational purposes and should not be construed as investment advice, advice concerning particular investments or investment decisions, or tax or legal advice.

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