• At its worst, the pandemic reduced flights in Europe by 91%, and movements are still down a third compared to August 2019.
  • Airlines have been helped by vaccination rates in the region that are among the highest in the world.
  • Desperate to get passengers back onboard, airlines have deeply discounted ticket prices, especially among budget carriers.
  • Business travel may be a thing of the past as remote working is set to stay.

Europe’s airlines have been cleared for take-off after 18 months during which the COVID-19 pandemic grounded fleets all over the region.

Widespread vaccinations that have lowered total infections of the virus have made it possible for governments to reopen borders they’d closed to prevent its spread.

But the industry that is slowly taking to the skies again is very different from the one that was carrying record numbers of passengers around the globe before COVID-19 closed runways.

The number of commercial flights that departed from and arrived at European Union airports in August was up 48% compared with last year, according to data from eurostat.

That was still down by 31% compared with August 2019, before the pandemic, the EU’s statistics bureau added. At the height of the pandemic, in April 2020, flights were down 91% on the previous April.

this chart shows how flights are starting to take off again in Europe
How flights are starting to take off again in Europe.
Image: Eurocontrol/eurostat

McKinsey doesn’t expect the industry to return to 2019 levels until 2024, in its more pessimistic scenario. Its more optimistic scenario could see ‘normal’ levels return by the end of 2022.

Vaccinations help recovery

The impact of COVID-19 lockdowns and cancelled flights on Europe’s tourism sector was severe. Tourism income in the EU halved – only Asia-Pacific fared worse – foreign spending fell 64% and employment in the industry fell 9%, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council’s (WTTC) Economic Trends Report, published in June.

The resurgence of the industry in Europe has been aided by a high rate of vaccinations, which has greatly reduced infections. European nations dominate the list of most-vaccinated countries around the world, according to data compiled Our World in Data.

Portugal has fully vaccinated 86% of its people, the highest rate in the world. Spain, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Finland, France and the UK are also within the leaders.

A mixed picture

Such high levels of vaccination take-up in Europe has enabled governments to roll-out COVID-19 passport programmes that permit passengers to fly without first undergoing lengthy periods of quarantine or self isolation. Even after no-fly orders were lifted, many countries retained some quarantine measures.

Those that did continue to see lower rates of recovery in their airline industries. The number of passengers passing through Finland’s Helsinki airport, for example, in July was still 82% lower than 2019.

It’s a similar story in Ireland where flight numbers in August were still 54% lower than in 2019. The nation only lifted mandatory hotel quarantine for international travellers in late September.

Airline discounts

Europe has a lot of budget airlines, and their efforts to get tourists back on planes has helped boost flights. Airlines such as Easyjet and Wizz Air are offering deep discounts on tickets.

Ryanair, which was the world’s fifth-largest airline by tickets sold in 2019, said it had discounted seats “to recover the market very quickly”, the Wall Street Journal quoted boss Michael O’Leary as saying.

McKinsey has launched an action group with the World Economic Forum to help airlines manage their recovery. It predicts the industry will recover “with a vengeance”, but in a very different form.

Aviation

What is the World Economic Forum doing to reduce aviation's carbon footprint?

As other sectors proceed to decarbonize, the aviation sector could account for a much higher share of global greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century than its 2%-3% share today.

Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) can reduce the life-cycle carbon footprint of aviation fuel by up to 80%, but they currently make up less than 0.1% of total aviation fuel consumption. Enabling a shift from fossil fuels to SAFs will require a significant increase in production, which is a costly investment.

The Forum’s Clean Skies for Tomorrow (CST) Coalition is a global initiative driving the transition to sustainable aviation fuels as part of the aviation industry’s ambitious efforts to achieve carbon-neutral flying.

The coalition brings together government leaders, climate experts and CEOs from aviation, energy, finance and other sectors who agree on the urgent need to help the aviation industry reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The coalition aims to advance the commercial scale of viable production of sustainable low-carbon aviation fuels (bio and synthetic) for broad adoption in the industry by 2030. Initiatives include a mechanism for aggregating demand for carbon-neutral flying, a co-investment vehicle and geographically specific value-chain industry blueprints.

Learn more about the Clean Skies for Tomorrow Coalition's impact and contact us to find out how you can get involved.

The future of aviation

Among the biggest changes will be the reduction in business travel as remote work continues. That means most flights will be for leisure and less cargo will be carried for some time yet.

Airlines lost billions during the pandemic and are now running debts that total $180 billion inlets year alone. As a result, there is likely to be more government involvement in airlines’ operations. Additionally, industry rationalization will leave only the strongest airlines flying.

And one of the most important developments is likely to be the faster development of sustainable aviation fuel to lure passengers whose concerns about the environment have been amplified by the pandemic.