Aviation's rebound from Covid-19 is underway but full recovery may take three years, an industry poll has found. Along the way, airlines face unprecedented volatility.
Among the hundreds of industry leaders surveyed, just 13 per cent believe aviation was prepared for the coronavirus crisis which has tipped several airlines over and forced nearly all of those still surviving to raise emergency private and government funding.
The poll finds the smoothest recovery is predicted for low-cost carriers, domestic and business travel.
Figures from last week show global flying is now close to 50 million seats a week being available, but that's just 45 per cent of the capacity available in the same week last year.
And according to data provider OAG, those seat numbers are back where they were in 1996.
Inmarsat and the Airline Passenger Experience Association (Apex) have released a report "Charting the Course into the Future", following the poll of 500 aviation professionals.
"Despite bracing for a slow recovery, the poll reveals a sense of optimism for the industry's future, with digitisation expected to drive the return to profitable growth," their report says.
The poll – completed between April and June 2020 - showed that more than half of respondents (60 per cent) expect a recovery to take between 18 months and three years.
Northern Hemisphere airlines are restarting and then ditching some routes depending on demand, and in this region Qantas has canned long-haul and mid-haul flying until March next year, while Air NZ doesn't believe its international network will gain momentum until well into 2021.
A Moody's report today says Australian airports' international business is not expected to be at 2019 levels until 2024.
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As is already the case in this country - where Air NZ is back at around 75 per cent capacity - domestic travel is expected to bounce back fastest from the current crisis. Almost nine in 10 respondents predict it will recover faster than international travel, which is still hit by factors such as border restrictions and quarantines.
The Chinese domestic market is one that has recovered quickly.
Seven out of 10 respondents expect point-to-point travel will bounce back faster than hub-and-spoke routes, with low-cost carriers (LCCs) expected to recover more quickly than full-service carriers (55 per cent and 45 per cent respectively).
"Whilst commentators initially suggested that the rise of remote working would be detrimental to business travel, 69 per cent of respondents expect a swifter recovery for business travel than leisure travel," Apex says.
If this is borne out, it will be welcomed by airlines which are heavily reliant on higher-yielding business travellers, but in this country it is leisure that has taken off more quickly.
Despite bailouts from many governments - including in this country, where Air NZ can tap into a $900 million loan - only 7 per cent of respondents believed governments have uniformly done enough to support the industry, suggesting that while the crisis is global, the responses at a national level have been varied.
And there could be problems with commitments to cut aviation's emissions.
"With a global recession potentially threatening investment in green technology, there was little consensus in the poll about the impact of Covid-19 on aviation's path to sustainability, with 36 per cent believing the crisis will accelerate progress and 47 per cent thinking it will delay progress," the Apex report says.
New health and safety guidance from industry bodies such as Apex and the International Air Transport Association – including enhancing the traceability of customers and establishing clear aircraft decontamination procedures - has driven necessary changes to passenger journeys.
As a result of deeper-cleaning measures, 88 per cent expect slower turnarounds, which could have a significant impact on flight schedules. Contactless catering was highlighted by 57 per cent as being important during the recovery period.
Almost half (44 per cent) expect to see empty middle seats being a common feature of the journey in the coming months, despite contrary guidance from Iata in May.
Airline staff are wearing increasingly elaborate personal protective equipment and passengers are also adopting more PPE. One Canadian company has designed hazmat suits that can be worn on planes.
Despite the financial impact facing many airlines, almost half of respondents (45 per cent) believe, in terms of passenger experience, the crisis will cause only a short-term reduction in investment, and almost a third (32 per cent) believe there will be an overall increase in investment.