Issue No. 812

A Hot Summer for U.S. Airlines?

U.S. airline executives believe the worst of the pandemic is behind us.

Pushing Back: Inside the Issue

To hear U.S. airline executives tell it, the summer ahead could be a bonanza, as travelers cooped up at home during the pandemic take to the airways in huge numbers. They say travelers will flock to beaches and outdoor leisure destinations at a level, if not quite 2019, approaching that from before the pandemic. Are they right? More of the U.S. population is vaccinated, and more states are reopening. But meanwhile, worrying Covid-19 outbreaks are being reported around the country.

In Europe, airline executives are more cautiously optimistic, eyeing the fall as when the recovery will get going. But Europe, with some exceptions, is behind the U.S. in vaccinations. Meanwhile, India, which had managed to keep the disease somewhat controlled, reported the largest-ever single day of infections anywhere since the pandemic began. And the disease continues its rampage across Brazil, with outbreaks in both countries worrying epidemiologists about dangerous new viral variants.

One thing everyone can agree on is that any recovery this summer (something Aircastle's CEO Mike Inglese said was "ambiguous") will be powered by leisure travelers. United, American, and Delta think business travel could start to recover by the second half of the year, but Southwest CEO Gary Kelly warned it could take years to come back and may not fully return to pre-pandemic levels.

Elsewhere in the issue, JetBlue is going to London, SpiceJet is coming to the U.S., and airlines all around the world are going to the beach. Canada didn't quite get to more airline aid in its federal budget, and Ryanair continues to fight against more state aid to Europe's airlines.

Verbulence

"We don't really like selling $1,000 fares anyway. We'd like to make a lot of money selling lower fares."

Alaska Airlines CFO Shane Tackett

The Airline Weekly Lounge Podcast

New episodes drop every week and are available wherever you get your podcasts and on AirlineWeekly.com. In the latest podcast, Edward "Ned" Russell and Madhu Unnikrishnan digest U.S. airline industry earnings (so far) and discuss executives' optimism. Listen to the episode.

Weekly Skies

United’s Kirby Says Inflection Point is Real This Time

Airline executives have tossed around the phrase “inflection point” a lot at various times during the coronavirus pandemic, ever hopeful that the latest uptick in traffic, or bookings, or decline in daily cash burn augurs a recovery in the offing.

So far, they’ve been disappointed, and the inflection point keeps moving. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby is no different. But he is convinced that now the airline is indeed at an inflection point, on an unstoppable upward trajectory fueled by an almost unsatiable demand for leisure travel, strengthening business demand, and border reopenings around the world.

Kirby acknowledges the present is grim, but he’s looking to 2023. That’s when United expects to match and ultimately exceed its 2019 profits. Closer in, domestic business travel should start to recover in the second half of the year. “We are still in the pre-season right now,” Kirby told analysts during the company’s first-quarter 2021 earnings call last week. “The regular season hasn’t started yet.”

Pre-season or not, getting to Kirby’s regular season will not be without its challenges, though. Pre-pandemic, United’s passenger mix was comprised of one-third domestic leisure travelers, one-third business travelers, and one-third international. The latter two segments are down by 80 percent compared with pre-pandemic levels and are subject to factors beyond the airline’s control or ability to predict. The recovery of domestic business travel is contingent on schools reopening and workers returning to their offices, both of which vary across the country and by industry. International travel will return when border restrictions ease, and when that happens is anyone’s guess.

Kirby is encouraged by recent developments in Greece, Croatia, and Iceland, which have eased travel restrictions for vaccinated passengers. United has added flights to all three and has seen leisure bookings skyrocket. If the U.S. and the UK open a travel corridor this summer, as is widely expected, Kirby predicts it will be hard to find a hotel room in England as travelers rush to take summer vacations.

United can’t take that to the bank yet, as passengers have shown an increasing willingness to abruptly change travel plans throughout the pandemic. Still, Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Nocella said the booking curve — the period of time between booking and travel — is lengthening, suggesting passengers are more confident in making longer-term plans. Shorter-haul Latin America markets are expected to recover first, followed by Europe, and finally by Asia. United expects a return to the pre-pandemic travel order by 2023, if not sooner. “That’s when we have high confidence,” Kirby said.

Videoconferencing tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams have disrupted business travel and forced a structural change, airline industry analysts have said. but Kirby brushed off those concerns. “Business travel is about relationships, and you cannot build human relationships through a medium like [videoconferencing],” he said. He acknowledged, however, that even if offices reopen and people want to travel, most companies haven’t budgeted for business travel this year. The recovery may begin in the second half, but it won’t take off until at least January, he said.

But when the “regular season,” to use Kirby’s American football analogy, begins, United is the best-positioned of the three major U.S. network airlines to reap the rewards, he said. United’s hubs are in the most important business markets — the New York metropolitan area, San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles — and it has the largest international network of the three. Its hub in Denver gives it access to outdoor leisure destinations now and is positioned to handle mid-continent business travel when that segment returns. United is preparing for the return by increasing connections over Denver and raising the size of its aircraft, with more high-capacity Boeing 737 Max aircraft and the return of its high-density Boeing 777s.

Right now, however, 17 of its 30 Boeing 737 Max aircraft are grounded due to an electrical issue Boeing flagged. The airline believes the fix will be “straightforward” and those aircraft will be returned to the flight soon after the specific problem is identified. The airline’s high-density 777s powered by Pratt & Whitney engines remain grounded. The airline pulled its 24 aircraft of the type out of service after an engine failure in February forced an emergency landing in Denver. Japan Airlines, the other operator of the Pratt-powered 777, recently retired the aircraft. United said it will return them to service as soon as they are deemed safe to fly.

United reported a first-quarter loss of $1.4 billion on $3.2 billion in revenues, down 66 percent from the same period in 2019. The carrier burned about $10 million in cash every day during the quarter, but this flipped in March, when United reported it was cash-flow positive. A year ago, United’s daily cash burn was $100 million. It flew 54 percent fewer seats in the first quarter when compared with 2019. In the second quarter, United expects capacity to be down 45 percent from 2019.

The carrier will have access to about $10 billion in secured notes and loans soon, which will allow it to retire its loans from the federal government through the CARES Act last year. This will be the last time it needs to raise Covid-related debt, Kirby said.

Cargo revenue has been strong throughout the pandemic, as airlines capitalized on a sharp uptick in e-commerce. United’s cargo revenues approached $500 million in the first quarter, up 74 percent from the same period in 2019.

United has realized about $2 billion in cost savings over the quarter and has permanently reduced its management and administrative staff — so much so that it has given up three floors of its corporate headquarters in Chicago. But the carrier is in the process of hiring 300 pilots to meet the anticipated increase in demand.

“I don’t care about winning games in the pre-season, Kirby added. “I want to win the regular season and the Super Bowl.”

Madhu Unnikrishnan

American to Fly 90 Percent of 2019 ASMs This Summer

Bookings are rising and business travelers may be on the cusp of returning at American Airlines, allowing the carrier to begin turning its focus back to its pre-coronavirus pandemic financial playbook even as the red ink continues.

Fare sales are out and managing seat availability is in with system net bookings hitting 2019 levels during the past week, American executives said during its first quarter earnings call last week. An impressive feat considering business and long-haul international travel — two traditional cash cows for the airline — are only back to about 20 percent of pre-crisis levels.

“Engineering bookings is not the issue anymore,” said American Chief Revenue Officer Vasu Raja during the call. “It is about getting yields back and getting RASM back, especially in our domestic system.”

That’s a good shift for American, which, even after nearly $2 billion in financial relief from the federal government, still lost $1.25 billion during the first quarter. But it is not so good for those eager would-be travelers ready to live the industry’s new favorite phrase: “pent-up demand.” Fares are heading up after historic lows in 2020, especially to popular holiday destinations this summer, executives said Thursday.

To meet some of that leisure demand, American will fly roughly 90 percent of its 2019 domestic seats this summer. Executives said all of its more than 1,400 mainline and regional aircraft — save the nearly 150 planes that were retired during the crisis — will be back in the air this summer. This includes wide-body jets — Boeing 777s and 787s that have two aisles — plying domestic routes that were previously the domain of narrow-body aircraft, like from Dallas/Fort Worth and Miami to destinations including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York and San Juan.

But fundamentally American needs business and long-haul international travelers to return for it to regain its financial footing. CEO Doug Parker noted this, pointing out while flying wide-bodies on domestic routes may be their best use this summer, the jets will likely return to more lucrative long-haul flying by next year.

“We are a long way from where we need to be,” he said. “This crisis is not over … but there is no doubt the pace of this recovery is accelerating.”

Business and long-haul international travel remain challenges for American. The airline is hardly alone in this with competitors Delta Air Lines and United also facing struggling in both segments. The lagging return of corporate road warriors and long-haul trips, particularly compared to domestic leisure travel, is why industry trade groups do not expect a full air travel recovery until at least 2024.

American is seeing green shoots among domestic business travel. In the first quarter, small business demand increased “steadily” in the first quarter, while large corporates have begun indicating plans to return workers to the road in the third quarter, said American president Robert Isom.

“There are early signs of recovery for business,” he said. “An increasing number of our largest corporate accounts … [are] confirming in person board meetings, conferences and events for this year.”

Internationally, American expects a gradual recovery stretching out over years rather than quarters. Executives are “encouraged” by developments on possible travel corridors — like the one being discussed for between the U.S. and UK — but shied away from giving any concrete expectation on when, or if, they could happen.

Despite expectations of a gradual recovery in long-haul international flying, American joined competitors unveiling some very lengthy new routes this week. On Wednesday, it announced plans for new service between New York JFK and New Delhi as among a slow of new routes under its controversial alliance with JetBlue Airways. Delhi flights are due to begin on October 31, barring no tightening of travel restrictions between the U.S. and India. The latter is seeing a dramatic spike in Covid-19 infections with reports that its health system is “collapsing.”

On a positive alliance note, Raja said that bookings under the new JetBlue alliance had already propelled the New York-based carrier to American’s “largest global codeshare partner” in just the first three weeks.

And in Washington, D.C., a large business-centric hub for American, a long-awaited new concourse for the airline’s regional flights opened at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Tuesday. The facility will allow American to fly more, larger jets with first class cabins to the airport as road warriors return.

Revenues at American fell by 52.9 percent year-over-year to $4 billion, and expenses by 51.9 percent to $5.3 billion in the first quarter. Its net loss totaled $2.7 billion before the benefit from federal payroll relief. And on a positive note, the airline turned its cash burn positive before $8 million in debt payments in March.

Looking forward American anticipates revenue coming in at 60 percent of 2019 levels — or about $7.2 billion — in the second quarter. Passenger capacity — measured by available seat miles, not actual seats — will be at 70 to 75 percent of two years ago.

Edward Russell

Southwest Reports Profits — Thanks to U.S. Taxpayers

Southwest Airlines turned a profit in the first quarter, thanks to Uncle Sam. Without help from the federal government’s payroll support program, which essentially picked up Southwest’s labor bill, the carrier would have reported a $1 billion quarterly loss. But with assistance from the federal government, the airline had a modest $116 million profit — and kept its 50-year streak without layoffs or furloughs.

The carrier is in talks with the federal government for an additional $1.9 billion in payroll support provided to the airline industry in last month’s economic stimulus bill. The extended program now runs through Sept. 30 and mandates that airlines taking the aid can’t lay off or involuntarily furlough any employees. Since the CARES Act last year, Congress has funneled more than $70 billion in aid to the country’s airlines.

That won’t be a problem for Southwest. Last year, 11,000 of the airline’s workers took voluntary extended leaves of absence. And with summer demand looking strong, Southwest has recalled about half of those employees. Southwest expects June staffing levels to be about 92 percent of June 2019. After that, it can’t predict, CEO Gary Kelly said during the company’s first-quarter 2021 earnings call last week.

If current trends continue, Southwest could recall more workers and be in a position to hire again. “We are all prepared for this to be messy,” Kelly said. “It’s not easy to predict, and it’s not easy to execute.”

Although Southwest is not thought of as a business-traveler airline, it is, simply by virtue of the fact that it is the largest U.S. airline by passenger traffic. Before the pandemic, Southwest’s largest pool of business travelers came from the defense, financial and professional services, and higher education industries. It recently became even more important to business travelers when it went after the corporate market by signing up with global distribution systems. “We are pushing aggressively into the huge managed travel market,” Kelly said.

In a marked contrast from its peers, like Delta and United, which say business travel will come back by the end of the year, Southwest doesn’t expect the business travel recovery to be any time soon. The airline is preparing for it to take as long as 10 years. After a typical recession, business travel takes about five years before it returns to pre-recession levels. This is not a typical recession. Some portion of business travel may be gone forever as workers become more comfortable with remote-work and videoconferencing technologies. Companies may simply not authorize as much business travel as they did.

Without those high-dollar business fares, Southwest expects its average ticket prices to be lower, even as leisure demand picks up. In the first quarter, average fares were 20 percent lower than in the same period last year. But it says it’s prepared for that and could reach breakeven or even profitability in June or July. Southwest expects to fly about 96 percent of its June 2019 capacity this June.

And one way it’s preparing for that more constrained future is by betting big on leisure travel, for which it sees a huge pent-up demand. “Leisure is pretty hot right now,” Kelly said. The carrier has added 17 new cities to its route map, most in beach, ski, and outdoor-leisure hotspots.  The booking curve is lengthening, signaling that consumer confidence is rising enough to plan vacations further out. The Mountain West, Florida’s Gulf Coast, Texas, and California all are growth regions for the carrier now, Commercial Chief Andrew Watterson said.

New destinations include Destin, Fla., Myrtle Beach, S.C., Eugene, Ore., and Bellingham, Wash. The latter city is a convenient jumping off point for Canada and for Canadian travelers to drive to for travel through the U.S. Southwest has no immediate plans to operate to Canada, at least until it resolves the technical challenge of foreign-currency sales, the company said.

Southwest recently made news be recommitting to Boeing, after a brief flirtation with the Airbus A220. Instead, the Dallas-based airline ordered 100 more of the aircraft, bringing its total number of Boeing 737 Max orders to 349. The orders break down to 200 for the smaller 737-7, with about 150 seats, and 149 of the larger 737-8, with about 175 seats. The orders will continue through 2031, cementing Southwest as an all-Boeing airline for at least the next decade. The carrier said the efficiencies in pilot training and operational simplicity offset any gains from switching to a different aircraft type. Southwest now operates a fleet of 730 Boeing 737s, including 61 Maxes.

Of those 61, however, 32 recently were grounded due an electrical issue Boeing identified. Southwest had idled aircraft to spare, so its schedule wasn’t affected. It expects to return the grounded aircraft to the flight line as soon as the Federal Aviation Administration clears them to fly.

Southwest reported a $116 million profit, including $1.2 billion in federal payroll support. Without that aid, the carrier would have reported a $1 billion quarterly loss. First-quarter revenues of $2.1 billion were 52 percent lower than in 2020. In March, operating revenues were down 10 percent from last year, when the pandemic first began to affect airlines, and 54 percent lower than in 2019.

The carrier’s average daily cash burn in the first quarter was $13 million per day. Daily cash burn in February was $14 million per day, improving to $9 million per day in March. Southwest expects cash burn to average between $2-4 million in the second quarter, with breakeven or profitability returning in June.

Madhu Unnikrishnan

Alaska Airlines’ California Dreaming

Alaska Airlines is watching California’s progress towards reopening on June 15 closely, with executives touting the date as a key “step change” in its recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

“Seeing [California] reopen will be a powerful near-term enabler for our path back,” said Alaska CEO Ben Minicucci said during a first-quarter earnings call.

It’s no small wonder that how California goes, so goes Alaska Airlines. The Seattle-based carrier has spent much of the past decade expanding its franchise in the Golden State, including the $2.6 billion acquisition of Bay Area-based Virgin America in 2016. By 2019, nearly 49 percent of Alaska’s capacity touched California — a 10 point increase over the decade — according to Cirium schedules. Half of its revenues also came from the state.

California has underperformed the rest of Alaska’s network since the pandemic began. In the first quarter, bookings touching the state were down roughly twice as much as the rest of the airline’s system, Alaska commercial chief Andrew Harrison said on the call. The real test will come in June when the state is due to reopen, he added couching his general optimism.

That caution is rightly placed considering the unpredictable nature of Covid-19. California partially reopened last August only to go back into lockdown in December. As of April 21, the state had fully vaccinated nearly 34 percent of its population and the number of new cases were trending downwards at 2,411 a day, according to state data.

Outside of California, Alaska’s outlook is more bullish. The airline plans to fly roughly 80 percent of its 2019 passenger capacity this summer primarily focused on its Anchorage, Portland, Ore., and Seattle hubs. The carrier is deliberate in its desire to raise load factors — and fares like at partner American — and retrain crews as it shifts to a mostly Boeing 737 fleet before recovering to pre-pandemic capacity by summer 2022, said Minicucci.

Business travel remains “severely depressed,” said Harrison. But Alaska has a line of sight on the critical segment recovering to about half of 2019 levels by year-end.

What’s more, the airline saw a 4.6 percentage point improvement in its share among managed corporate accounts during the first quarter compared with 2019, Harrison added. This came amid the expansion of Alaska’s renewed codeshare with American and membership in Oneworld, which occurred on March 31. Capturing more corporate traffic was cited as a driver for both strategic moves.

The airline posted a $131 million net loss after a $411 million federal payroll relief benefit in the first quarter. Revenues and expenses were both down 51 percent year-over-year to $797 million and $958 million, respectively. Passenger traffic was down 49 percent on a 32 percent drop in capacity.

Alaska’s results were ahead of the Wall Street consensus for the first quarter. Revenues and capacity recovered more than forecast, while its cost performance missed expectations.

For the second quarter, Alaska anticipates revenues of 63 to 68 percent of 2019 levels, said Harrison. Passenger capacity will be about 80 percent of two years ago.

And, if all goes as hoped, the April-to-June period could be the last loss for Alaska. Executives at the airline anticipate turning the corner and returning to profitability in the third quarter.

Edward Russell

Emirates Could Seek More Government Financing

If demand doesn’t pick up in the next six to nine months, Emirates may have to return to the government of Dubai for more financing, airline President Tim Clark said at the World Aviation Festival online last week. The carrier now is in talks with the government about that possibility, especially if demand does not return by October of this year. “No airline, no business can sustain this kind of lack of demand,” he said.

The pandemic has lasted longer than anyone expected and shows no sign of letting up soon, Clark said, adding that Emirates had expected a meaningful recovery to begin this May. “That clearly hasn’t happened,” he said. New variants in top Emirates markets like India, as well as slower-than-expected vaccination programs, have dampened demand for international travel. Moreover, government restrictions seem to “change by the day,” making it almost impossible for airlines to plan, he said

But revenue is coming in. The airline still flies 20,000-30,000 passengers per day. Cargo has been a bright spot, and “thank goodness for that,” Clark said. Emirates plans to convert more Boeing 777-300ERs, which are at the end of their passenger lives, to freighters. Freight rates will remain high as long as the pandemic lasts and could spiral higher if more airlines park widebodies or if international passenger traffic on widebodies doesn’t return.

Emirates is still committed to the Airbus A380, taking delivery of its last five this year, and plans to operate that fleet until the next decade. But after that, it will resort to Boeing 777s for its very large aircraft fleet. But Clark believes Airbus and Boeing will have to reconsider their very large aircraft segments. Passenger traffic will return and will continue growing, while congested airports like Heathrow will not. But until then, “whether we like it or not,” Emirates will see its average gauge size fall. Emirates now has six slots at Heathrow that it uses for A380s. When the A380s retire, the airline will have to use 777-9s on those routes, he said.

The carrier is also committed to the 777X, despite the program’s many travails. Clark said the airline will be having “very grown up discussions” with Boeing over the next several months to see when the delays to the program might be resolved. It is his belief that the delays are caused by the increased regulatory scrutiny Boeing has faced since the Max affair.

Emirates will work more closely with FlyDubai on short-haul lift. This may result in a “rationalization” of the two airlines’ networks. How routes will be shared remains to be determined, Clark said.

Clark delayed his retirement to see Emirates through the pandemic. He did not offer a timeline for when he may step down, but he did note he believes the airline will recruit its next leader from within Dubai’s robust aviation sector.

Madhu Unnikrishnan

It Could Have Been Worse for Aeromexico

Aeromexico’s first quarter wasn’t as bad as it could have been, all things considered. The country has been grappling with a rising coronavirus infections and a slower-than-expected vaccine rollout program. However, the government has approved five vaccines for use in the country, signaling that relief could be on the way. Despite the severity of the Covid-19 outbreak in Mexico, the government never fully closed the country down.

The carrier reported its capacity rose 7 percent in the first quarter compared with the end of 2020, but was down 38 percent compared with the first quarter of last year. Losses in the quarter reached $171 million (3.4 billion pesos) on revenues that were down 51 percent from 2020. Aeromexico has been operating under U.S. Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since last June.

In the quarter, Aeromexico was approved for up to $275 million in debtor-in-possession financing in two tranches. The final disbursement was approved after the amended its union contracts.

Aeromexico ended the quarter with 106 aircraft, down from 119 last year. The carrier removed nine Embraer E170s, four Boeing 737-700s, five 737-800s and one 787 from its fleet, and added six 737-8s. All six Max aircraft are operational.

Madhu Unnikrishnan

IATA Ups Global Loss Forecast

It’s all going to come down to vaccines and how countries control the coronavirus. That was the lesson at the start of the pandemic, and it’s no less true now. But because the pace of vaccinations has been uneven, IATA is now more pessimistic about this year than it was at the end of 2020.

The global industry is expected to lose $48 billion this year, a greater loss than the $38 billion IATA forecast for 2021 at the end of last year. And 2020 was worse than expected as well, resulting in a $126 billion loss across the airline industry, compared with IATA’s previous forecast of $119 billion. Cargo, though, is expected to grow by 13 percent this year and be the rare bright spot for the struggling industry. But that’s not enough to offset passenger losses.

The recovery will be uneven. Domestic U.S. and China are expected to recover faster, led by leisure traffic. Europe and the North Atlantic, less quickly. And the Asia-Pacific region will be uneven, with some countries, like Australia and New Zealand in addition to China, bouncing back more quickly than others. Of course, all of this is contingent on containing the disease and if the vaccines are effective against any new variants of the virus that may emerge. IATA points to Brazil as a cautionary tale: poised to recover at the end of 2020 but facing a horrific surge of Covid-19 now.

Revenues this year are expected to be a little more than half of 2019 levels. Traffic, worldwide, is expected to be about 43 percent of 2019. Another headwind facing airlines is the rise in fuel prices, a function of strengthening economies. Fuel prices are expected to average around $69 per barrel of jet fuel, higher than IATA anticipated.

Willie Walsh, who took over as director general earlier this year, said at the World Aviation Festival last week that he is optimistic that the second half of the year will be stronger than the first. A more enduring recovery will probably be underway by the beginning of next year.

Madhu Unnikrishnan

Canada Stops Short of More Airline Aid

Canada’s federal budget, delivered to Parliament this week by the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, offered the country’s struggling airlines a half-step toward aid without directly funding the industry. This stands is stark contrast to the U.S., which has funneled more than $70 billion to the country’s airlines since the pandemic began.

The budget includes $66 million (CAD$83 million) for biosecurity measures for the country’s airports. Other measures include $84 million to Transport Canada for digital security and $217 million for enhanced screening at 89 airports. The budget also includes a commitment to reopening the country’s borders. Canada has among the most stringent travel restrictions in the world, requiring both negative Covid tests and quarantines for incoming passengers. The U.S. border remains closed for non-essential travel.

The budget also contains almost $2 billion in aid for Canada’s aerospace sector.

Airlines did not get any direct aid in the budget, but airlines may be elibigle for loans through the government’s Large Employer Emergency Financing Air Canada recently got a $5 billion package through the program. The government is in talks with WestJet, Sunwing, and Air Transat for LEEF financing, Airline Weekly has confirmed.

The National Airlines Council of Canada (NACC), which represents the industry, said the budget was a good first step. “But more work is required, in particular the development of a safe restart plan for aviation and international travel, if we are to restore the hundreds of thousands of Canadian jobs that are supported by the sector and facilitate the economic recovery of communities across every region of Canada,” Mike McNaney, NACC president, said.

Air Canada has roughly halved its workforce since the pandemic began. Most of those workers were eligible for existing unemployment programs. As part of its loans through LEEF, Air Canada pledged to keep all 15,000 employees remaining on its roster. The carrier also committed to buying 33 Airbus A220s manufactured in Mirabel, Quebec as part of the deal.

In the U.S., by contrast, the CARES Act last year and subsequent coronavirus aid packages prevented U.S. airlines from furloughing or laying off staff. Tens of thousands of employees in the U.S. took voluntary separation offers, however.

WestJet did not confirm if it is in talks with the government for a LEEF loan package, but said it is discussing a safe travel restart program. “A healthy WestJet will help lead a stronger recovery, increasing competition and consumer choice while lowering the cost of travel for Canadians, all while anchoring Canada’s vital air travel and tourism sectors,” a spokesperson said.

Until the LEEF program extended aid to Air Canada last week, Canada stood out among large economies for not providing direct aid to airlines. “Countries that have a robust safe restart plan for their aviation sector and international travel, will be the best positioned to ensure the strong return of their overall economy, and bring back jobs and investment by successfully competing and taking market share from countries that are not well prepared,” McNaney said. 

Madhu Unnikrishnan

In Other News

  • The summer may not be the bonanza everyone is expecting, especially if travel restrictions around Europe remain in force and the pace of vaccinations remains low, Ryanair CEO Eddie Wilson said last week at the World Aviation Festival. Northern Europeans will get to the beach “any way they can,” he said, but whether the airline industry can transport them remains to be seen. Still, Ryanair is prepared to operate up to 75 percent of its 2019 capacity this summer and can flex that up or down, depending on demand.

    Separately, Wilson was vehement that state aid to Europe’s airlines is not only distorting the market but preventing the natural course of industry consolidation. The Dublin-based carrier is fighting state aid, appealing French and Scandinavian aid to their airlines in the European Court of Justice. “We all know there has be some level of support during this crisis, but you can’t pick out your favorite sons and daughters.” As for Italian aid for Alitalia, Wilson scoffed and said he admired the Italian people’s patience for the government pumping money into a “hopelessly inefficient” airline.
  • Virgin Atlantic made £500 million ($692 million) from cargo over the last 12 months, but CEO Shai Weiss hopes to halve that number in the next couple of years. Why? The airline is now ferrying much of its freight tonnage on cargo-only flights. A decline in revenues would signal the return of passengers. But with that said, Weiss wants cargo to continue playing an important role in Virgin Atlantic’s future business — just not as much as it is now, during the pandemic.

    JetBlue’s planned entry into London will play right in Virgin Atlantic’s premium-leisure sandbox, Weiss acknowledged at the World Aviation Festival last week. “We will take them extremely seriously,” he said, adding, “and we will make their lives extremely difficult.”
  • The U.S. Transportation Department (DOT) approved SpiceJet’s application to fly to the U.S. The tentative approval of SpiceJet’s foreign air carrier permit now is subject to a comment period, after which permanent approval is expected. SpiceJet applied for the exemption and foreign air carrier permit in November. The approval allows it to operate between any point in India to any point in the U.S., and to continue to a third country for the purpose of transporting passengers from India to the third country without a change of aircraft.

Madhu Unnikrishnan

Expand Section

Routes and Networks

JetBlue Airways has made the grade for takeoff to the UK this summer with the official green light for its planned service to London.

The UK Civil Aviation Authority granted the New York-based carrier a scheduled foreign carrier permit last week, a key regulatory hurdle ahead of starting flights. JetBlue plans to begin flights to London from both Boston and New York by September.

“We are delighted to have received regulatory approval from the Civil Aviation Authority,” said JetBlue spokesperson Philip Stewart. “This brings us one step closer to launching our new JetBlue transatlantic service.”

Sign off from UK authorities marks JetBlue’s turn onto the home stretch for its long-planned London service. First unveiled in 2019, the airline had to check numerous boxes to get there, from acquiring new planes — the Airbus A321LR — to getting regulatory sign off and securing takeoff and landing rights at one of London’s busy airports. Only the final one remains a question mark five months out from JetBlue’s target launch.

London airports slot coordinator Airport Coordination Limited (ACL) has allocated JetBlue enough takeoff and landing rights at London Heathrow, according to the latest data for the Summer 2021 season that ends in October. ACL shows the carrier beginning a daily flight to Heathrow the week of August 2, and expanding to two daily flights on during the week of September 13. The data do not show the timing of the slots.

The ACL data do not equal a schedule and airlines are able to swap, request or decline any slots. For example in 2020, JetBlue was allocated slots at London’s Gatwick and Stansted airports that it declined.

In addition, JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes has said that the target third quarter launch is subject to an easing of Covid-19 travel restrictions between the U.S. and UK. Something that has yet to occur.

The A321LR jets that JetBlue will fly to London are outfitted with just 138 seats — a light configuration for a transatlantic flight — including 24 lie-flat seats in its posh Mint premium cabin. The carrier is betting on its premium product to woo flyers away from the legacy airlines that dominate the U.S.-London market, including American Airlines, British Airways, Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic Airways. From Boston, United Airlines also plans to enter the fray this summer.

“When we take our product, when we take our customer base already that is very keen for us to do this, and we take low fares — we think that’s a winning combination,” said Hayes on JetBlue’s London ambitions at a J.P. Morgan event in March. “We think that’s going to ramp up very quickly.”

Edward Russell

Routes Briefs

  • Within a week of Greece reopening to American travelers who can prove they are inoculated against Covid-19 or have a negative PCR test, Delta and United are piling in with new flights. United will add daily service between Washington Dulles and Athens on July 1, followed a day later by Delta with daily flights between Atlanta and Athens. Both routes complement the airlines’ existing flights to Greece from JFK for Delta and Newark for United.
  • American and JetBlue unveiled a slew of new destinations and routes as part of their alliance in what could be seen as a show for investigators at Department of Justice looking into the partnership. American will return to New Delhi with service from New York JFK on October 31; the airline dropped the Indian capital from its map in 2012. The airline will also add new service between Boston and Cincinnati, St. Louis and Toronto; and New York LaGuardia and Houston Intercontinental, Oklahoma City and Omaha on November 2.

    JetBlue will add Asheville, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Puerto Vallarta, San Antonio, San Pedro Sula and Vancouver to its map beginning from October through summer 2022. It will connect the cities to either Boston or JFK, or both. In addition, the airline plans new service between LaGuardia and Jacksonville, Sarasota and Savannah from October; LaGuardia to Nashville, New Orleans and Portland, Maine, flights will begin in 2022. JetBlue’s new JFK and LaGuardia flights are possible through slot swaps with American.
  • It’s annyeonghaseyo for Delta with plans to launch new service between Portland, Ore. and Seoul Incheon this fall. Beginning Sept. 9, the route will connect Portland — once Delta’s gateway to Asia — the hub of its partner Korean Air. The new route comes as Delta’s long standing Portland-Tokyo route remains suspended; schedules show the flight to Haneda airport resuming October 30, according to Cirium data.
  • Flydubai plans two new seasonal routes to Turkey this summer. The budget carrier will connect Dubai and Bodrum from June 4, and Trabzon from May 13. Both routes will end September 1.
  • Ryanair is offering Brits more options to live their “Mamma Mia” dreams — and take advantage of a Covid-19 vaccination — in Greece this summer. The discounter will add new seasonal service between Liverpool and Kos, Manchester and Santorini, and Teeside and Corfu from July. Flights will operate through the summer season.
  • Husavik dreaming? United will add Dubrovnik to its map plus new service to Reykjavik this summer. The carrier will connect Reykjavik and Chicago O’Hare — joining Delta upping capacity to Iceland — daily from July 1; and Dubrovnik and Newark thrice-weekly from July 8. Both routes, plus the aforementioned new service to Athens, Greece, will operate seasonally through early October.

    Separately, United plans to fly 67 percent of its 2019 domestic schedule and 60 percent of its system schedule in June. The airline will welcome Joplin, Mo., and West Yellowstone, Mont., to its map that month. Other new routes that month include service between Anchorage and Fairbanks.
  • U.S. regional Silver Airways continues extending its tentacles, err routes, across the south. Following the additions of Columbia, Charleston and Greenville/Spartanburg, S.C., and Savannah since 2020, the airline will connect Jacksonville and New Orleans twice daily from June 3.

Edward Russell

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Landing Strip

  • American Airlines has new digs at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport where a new 14-gate regional concourse debuted last week. The opening comes three months early and under budget for the nearly $400 million project, which is part of a larger $1 billion expansion of the airport. The concourse replaces Gate 35X — a ground-level bus gate serving 14 remote parking positions, something uncommon at major U.S. airports — that even the most partisan D.C. pols agreed to dislike.
  • Not all the Covid-19 related airport news is good news. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) has signed off on a Delta Air Lines proposal to more than halve its planned expansion of Terminal 4 at New York JFK. The now $1.5 billion project, down from $3.8 billion in February 2020, swaps 16 new narrowbody gates for just two new gates plus eight regional jet boarding positions. The expansion replaces aging Terminal 2 at JFK, which will be demolished. Construction could begin in the third quarter with the gates opening by the end of 2022.
  • A consortium of Munich Airport, Meridiam and Strabag took over operations of the Sofia Airport in Bulgaria last week. The group holds the concession for the airport, including a commitment to build a new Terminal 3 within a decade.
  • Asur, which operates airports in Mexico, Colombia, and Puerto Rico, reported its most recent quarterly revenues were down 30 percent year-over-year. Despite Mexico being largely open, traffic at Asur’s airports in that country was down 36 percent from last year. Traffic in Colombia was down 30 percent. Things were slightly better in Puerto Rico, where passenger traffic declined by 20 percent from a year ago.

Edward Russell & Madhu Unnikrishnan

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Fleet

Aircastle says the fundamentals of air transport remain strong and the industry will return to growth, although the company didn’t hazard a guess when that may be. Until growth returns, though, the lessor believes airlines will be looking to add new, fuel-efficient narrowbodies for short-haul and regional missions.

“Things are moving in the right direction,” CEO Mike Inglese told analysts last week during the lessor’s fourth-quarter and full fiscal-year earnings call. A sign of this is the lessor has seen deferrals “stabilize,” he said.

Airlines that have larger domestic and regional networks are looking for new narrowbodies and will lead the recovery, Inglese said. With the near collapse of international travel, widebody demand remains depressed and is likely to stay low for the near- to medium-term as the market sops up existing widebody aircraft, he said.

But the near-term picture is far from rosy. The pace of vaccinations is uneven and not as far enough along as was first predicted. Travel bubbles have not worked as well as they were expected to. No global consensus exists to lift travel restrictions, and airlines are hampered by a confusing array of travel restrictions, making it difficult to plan. It remains “ambiguous” whether airlines will be able to capitalize on the upcoming peak summer travel season.

Regionally, Inglese said Southeast Asia is perhaps the most challenged. Singapore hasn’t recovered as much as was expected, and other countries in the region are closing down or are suffering new outbreaks of the coronavirus. “Southeast Asia is progressing a lot slower than everyone would like,” Inglese said.

The lessor, which was taken private last year and is now owned by Mizuho Leasing and Marubeni, has placed 18 of the 25 Embraer E195-E2s it has ordered, 15 of those with KLM. The company ended its fiscal year with 252 aircraft, primarily narrowbodies.

Aircastle reported a fiscal fourth-quarter loss of $96 million on revenues of $198 million.

Madhu Unnikrishnan

  • Delta Air Lines exercised 25 Airbus A321neo options last week, upping its firm commitment for the re-engined jet to 125 aircraft plus another 100 options. Its first A321neo will arrive in the first half of next year. In addition, Delta moved up three widebody deliveries — two A350-900s and one A330-900 — to the second half of 2022.
  • Aeromexico is adding 28 aircraft to its fleet, in a newly announced deal with Boeing and lessors. The order is comprised of 24 737s, including 737 Max 8s and 9s, although the airline did not specify the precise fleet mix. Aeromexico is also adding four 787-9s. The first nine aircraft are due by summer, and the carrier expects the balance to arrive in the second half of this year and through next year. Aeromexico, which is operating under U.S. bankruptcy protection, said the deal is part of a restructuring of its agreements with Boeing and its lessors. CEO Andres Conesa said restructured aircraft agreements give the carrier a “strong path” to exiting Chapter 11 later this year.
  • Etihad Airways is busy reinventing itself as a “midsized airline,” CEO Tony Douglas said last week. Much of this plan centers around the carrier’s fleet, which Douglas said had become too complex to be efficient. Etihad’s 10 Airbus A380s have been parked “indefinitely,” and are unlikely to return. Similarly, it has retired its Airbus A330s and Boeing 777-300ERs. Its fleet now will focus on Boeing 787s and Airbus A350-1000s. About the 777X, “it’s still too early to say,” Douglas said.

Edward Russell & Madhu Unnikrishnan

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