MIAMI – Since the COVID-19 outbreak, scheduled flights and services to Asia and to Italy have been suspended, causing not only a historic low in passenger demand but also significant consequences in airlines’ budgets across the globe.

By now, at least 2,916 people have died and 84,260 have been infected with coronavirus worldwide in less than two months since the start of the outbreak.

By the time of this writing, the US Department of State (DOS) has raised the travel advisory for Italy and South Korea to level 4 (do not travel) as it did in the past weeks with China.

Below is a general chronology of an epidemic that is now threatening the commercial aviation industry as a whole.

January 2020: First consequences of COVID-19 outbreak in air traffic

The 2020 Chinese New Year started with the news that the Asian region had 35% of the global passenger demand in 2019, following the 611,400m passengers that China registered in 2018, according to S&P Global Platts, a leading independent news provider of the energy and raw materials markets.

However, during the third and fourth weeks of January, worldwide headlines read that in the region of Wuhan, China, a novel virus had been discovered with citizens infected and deaths registered.

As the headlines of the virus kept coming, the first measures recommended to airlines by health organizations were only to follow standard safety precautions while those to passengers were to avoid traveling if sick. 

Photo: USA Today.

On January 27, Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), informed of the distribution of masks and gloves for flight attendants and passengers with flu symptoms.

Around that time, there were only five US airports carrying out body temperature entry screenings to deal with the possible arrival of the virus: San Francisco (SFO), Los Angeles (LAX), Chicago (ORD), Atlanta (ATL), and New York (JFK).

On January 29, Japan became the first country to send a rescue flight to evacuate its nationals in Wuhan, China with an ANA Boeing 767-300. On that flight, both rescue flight crew members and passengers used protective suits, goggles, and surgical masks, all eager to get back home.

Governments from Asia, Europe, North America, and Oceania followed suit and have since repeated such rescue actions within the last two months.

Between January 23 and 28, Cirium, a travel industry data and analytics outlet, revealed that 92% of all scheduled flights to China were canceled, with a total of 2,406 services that were not operative over this time period.

At that time, out of the 90,607 domestic and international flights that were scheduled to operate across mainland China, 9,807 did not fly, representing 10.8% of total operations in the region.

Cirium’s data also showed that during the last weeks of January, China Eastern Airlines (MU) was the most heavily affected carrier due to its total number of canceled flights, with China Southern Airlines (CZ) registering 1,510 dropped flights.

February 2020: COVID-19 escalation shows serious symptoms in the air

Starting the second month of the year, scheduled frequencies to the Asian country dropped by 24% in lew of a worsening of the outbreak, as stated by Cirium tracking.

The Cirium reports were followed by declarations from IATA’s CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, who cautioned that while there was a significant drop in traffic to China and the Asian region, it was a little bit too early to give “precise figures and measures.”

Juniac added that in the previous SARS and H1N1 outbreaks, the decline persisted to “five to seven weeks, with a recovery of ten to 15 weeks.”

Notwithstanding the certain downplay of the imminent crisis, the news came that China was using 20% less oil with a global capacity registered at 16% because of the decrease in flights. As a result, market demand and oil prices were notably reduced.

Alas, while IATA’s forecasts for the month of February indicated a growth of 4.7% for the air market, the outbreak ultimately reduced it to 2.8%.

By February 7, the following carriers had reduced their flight frequencies:

  • Cathay Pacific (CX)
  • Dragon Air (KA)
  • Hong Kong Airlines (HX)
  • Singapore Airlines (SQ)
  • China Airlines (CI)
  • Eva Air (BR)
  • Japan Airlines (JL)
  • ANA (NH)
  • Korean Air (KE)
  • Asiana (OZ)
  • Thai Airways (TG)
  • Thai Lion Air (SL)
  • Thai AirAsia (FD)
  • Malaysia Airlines (MH)
  • AirAsia (AK)
  • Emirates (EK)
  • Etihad (EY)
  • Ethiopian Airlines (ET)
  • Mahan (WS)
  • Aerflot (SU)
  • Scoot (TR)

The epidemic halts 50% of all programed flights to Asia

As the first week of February flew by, scheduled flights to the epicentral region went down 25% while programmed flights dropped to more than 50% due to recommendations not to fly to Asia.

On February 8, over 10,000 flights destined to Asia were canceled. As one result, CX cut 30% worldwide capacity and 90% China capacity, asking its staff to take unpaid leave to limit cash flow bleeding.

The measure was followed by CZ, Hainan (HU) and Bangkok Air (PG), the latter which also halted executive salaries. Then, Hong Kong Airlines (HX) decided to cut 400 jobs.

On February 13, Cirrium came out with a report stating that almost 86,000 domestic and international flights in and out of China had been suspended from January 23 through February 11, representing a 34% decrease that ended up being 63% in less than three weeks.

The virus fallout in numbers

Air China (CA) dropped 2.9%, while CZ did in 4.6% and MU in 5.4%, cutting its seat capacity from 60% to 80%, according to OAG Aviation. As a result, Spring Airlines (9C) assumed the position of being China’s largest international carrier, with a reduction of only 6% in seat capacity.

Also Air Macau (NX) flight cancellations rose to 58,6%, KA’s to 58% and SL’s to 56,3%, on the whole reporting the biggest proportion of their international route capacity exposed to mainland China market, according to OAG.

In small contrast, the fallout for other airlines was less drastic, with United Airlines (UA) clocking its canceled flight at 5,1%, CX’s at 4,1%, Delta (DL) ‘s at 3,6%, EK’s at 2,6%, Lufthansa (LH) ‘s at 2,5% and British Airways (BA)’s at 0,9%.

On February 20, IATA declared that air travel demand globally would be set to fall for the first time since 2009 and would carry US$29bn for airlines, most of them located in the Asia-Pacific region.

On February 21, more than 200,000 flights were reported as canceled.

On February 24, UA became the first US carrier to withdraw its 2020 profit guidance.

For the last week of February, full-service European carriers, Air France (AF), LH and BA fell about 9%. In the US, American Airlines (AA) dropped 8,5% to US$25,45, DL’ stock lost 6,3% to US$54,23, UA had a reduction of 3,3% and Southwest Airlines (WN)’s went down 4,3%.

On February 26, KE’s flight attendant tested positive for coronavirus due to a flight that had a group of South Koreans passengers who were positively diagnosed.

On February 29, a man died of coronavirus in the US state of Washington, marking the first reported death in the United States.

Distressing months ahead for the industry

“It is difficult for airlines to consistently turn a profit in the face of fluctuating fuel costs, high levels of regulation, often aggressive unions, fierce competition, and the bargaining power of passengers,” said Loizos Heracleous, Professor of Strategy at Warwick Business School and an aviation industry expert.

Airlines “also have high-cost assets, namely planes, which have little alternative use when flights are canceled and passengers numbers are down in the face of global issue like coronavirus” in a year that is “is already shaping up to be a difficult one for the aviation industry,” Heracleous added.

In the last two months, China has reported 79,251 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and more than 2,800 confirmed deaths from the virus; South Korea, 2,337 infected people, 13 deaths; Italy, 650 cases, 17 deaths; Iran, 388 cases, 34 deaths; Japan, 202 cases, 5 deaths; United States, 1 case, 1 death.

According to the latest report in The Wall Street Journal, experts predict that the global aviation industry’s revenues in airlines, airports and other related entities could be affected by as much as US$100bn due to COVID-19.

As Q1 2020 closes, world governments, health organizations and the aviation industry will together have to grapple with the novel virus as it continues to take its toll on commercial air travel.

Airlines, routes, and services affected

Airlines that have canceled all flights to mainland China*

Air France (AF)Suspended all flightsFebruary 6-March
Air India (AI) Suspended flights to Shanghai, Hong KongUntil June 30
Air Mauritius (MK)Suspended all flights to China and Hong KongUntil further notice
Air Seoul (RS) Suspended all flightsFrom January 28 until further notice
Air Tanzania (TC)Planned to begin charter flights to China in February, but postponed its maiden flightsFrom February until further notice
American Airlines (AA) Extended suspension of China and Hong Kong flightsFrom February 11 through April 24
Austrian Airlines (OS)Suspended all flightsUntil end-February
British Airways (BA)SuspensionFrom January 29-March 31
CargoLogicAir (P3)SuspensionFrom February 27-indefinitely
Delta Airlines (DL)SuspensionFrom February 2-April 30
Egyptair (MS) Suspended flights and it would resume some flights to and from China starting next weekFebruary 1 until end-February
El Al Israel Airlines (LG) Extended its suspension of flights to Hong Kong and BeijingUntil May 2
Iberia (IB)Extended its suspension of flights from Madrid to ShanghaiFrom February 29 until the end-April
Jeju Air (7C)Suspended all routesMarch 1
Kenya Airways (KQ)Canceled all flightsJanuary 31 until further notice
KLM (KL)Extended its banUntil March 28
Thai Lion Air (LS)SuspensionFrom January 31
LOT (SU)Extended flight suspensionUntil March 28
Lufthansa (LH)Extended flight cancelationsMarch 28
Saudi (SV)Oman and Saudi flights were suspendedFrom February 2 until further notice
Qatar Airways (QR) SuspensionFrom February 1 until further notice
Rwandair (WB)SuspensionFrom January 31 until further notice
Scoot (TR)SuspensionFrom February 8 until further notice
United Airlines (UA)Suspended services to China and Hong KongFrom February 5 and 8, respectively-April 23
Vietjet (VJ)Suspended flights to China, Hong Kong and MacauUntil April
Vietnam Airlines (VN) Suspended flights to China, Hong Kong and MacauFrom February 1-April 30

Airlines that have canceled some china flights/routes or modified their service*

Air Canada (AC)Extended the suspension of its flights
to Beijing and Shanghai and also
canceled its Toronto to Hong Kong flights while Vancouver to Hong Kong route remains active
Until March 27 and from March 1 to March 27, respectively
Air China (CA)Canceled flights to Greece and also it will adjust its flights between China and the USFrom February 17 to March 18
Air New Zealand (NZ)Suspended Auckland-Shanghai service and also reduced its capacity on Shanghai and Hong Kong routesFrom February 9-March 2, throughout April and throughout April and May, respectively
ANA (NH) Suspended routes to Shanghai and Hong KongFrom February 10 until further notice
Cathay Pacific (CX)Plans to cut a third of its capacity over the next two months, including 90% of flights to mainland China while encouraged its employees to take three weeks of unpaid leave to save cashUntil further notice
Emirates (EK)Canceled routes to and from China, except for BeijingFrom February 3 until further notice
Etihad (EY)Suspended flights to and from China, except for Beijing From February 3 until March
Finnair (AY)Canceled all flights to China and decreased the number of flights to Hong KongUntil March 28
Hainan (HU) Suspended flights between Budapest, Hungary and ChongqingFrom February 7-March 27
Korean Air Lines (KE) Suspended eight routes to China and reduced services on nine Chinese routesFrom February 7 and 22
Philippine Airlines (PR)Reduced over half of flights between Manila and China and also cut jobsFrom beginning of February
Qantas Airways (QF)Suspended direct flights to China from February 1 and also reduced Sydney-Beijing and Sydney-Shanghai flights From February 1 and from February 9-March 29, respectively
Royal Air Maroc (AT)Suspended direct flights to ChinaFrom January 31-February 29
All Russian airlines, with the exception of Aeroflot (SU) and Ikar (7D)Stopped flying to China from while 7D will continue its flights between Moscow and China. All planes arriving from China would be sent to a separate terminal in the Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport (SVO). Also SU reduced the frequency of flights to Beijing, Shanghai and GuangzhouRussian measures from January 31 while SU’s action would be until February 29
Vistara (UK)Suspended flights to China and also reduced flights to and from Bangkok and Singapore From February 26
SAS (SK)Extended its suspension of flights to Shanghai and BeijingUntil March 29
Singapore Airlines (SQ)Suspended capacity on flights to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Xiamen and Chongqing on over 3,000 flightsFrom February 25
UPS (5S)Canceled 22 flights to China because of the virus and normal manufacturing closuresFrom beginning of February
Virgin Atlantic (VS)Extended its suspension of daily operations to ShanghaiUntil
March 28
Virgin Australia (VA)Reduced flights from Sydney-Hong Kong route because it was no longer a viable commercial routeFrom
March 2

Airlines and aviation authorities that have modified service on other routes*

Air Canada (AC)Allowed travelers to rebook flights to parts of Italy at no chargeFrom February 24
Asiana (OZ)Cut all flights to Daegu, South KoreaUntil March 9
Bahrain Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)Suspended all its flights from Dubai and Sharjah airports for 48 hoursFrom February 24 until further notice
Bamboo Airways (QH)Suspended flights between Da Nang and Nha Trang to Seoul’s Incheon International Airport (ICN)From February 26
British Airways (BA)Canceled some flights to and from Milan and SeoulFrom February 27
Brussels Airlines (SN)Suspended routes to ItalyFrom February 28
Delta (DL)Suspended its Minneapolis-to-Seoul line until April and also reduced Seoul-bound flights from Atlanta, Seattle and DetroitFrom February 26
EasyJet (DS)Canceled some flights to Milan, ItalyFrom February 28
El Al Israel Airlines (LG)Suspended flights to Italy, including Milan and Rome and to Bangkok. It will also delay launching a new route to TokyoFrom February 28 to March 14, from March 2 and 27 and from March until April 4, respectively
Hawaiian Airlines (HA)Cut flights to SeoulUntil April 30
JetBlue (B6)Added travel waiver list for different destinationsFrom February 27
Kazakhstan (KZ)It will suspend flights to Iran and will also reduce the number of South Korea flightsFrom March 1
Korean Air (KE)Suspended flights to DaeguUntil March 28
Kuwait’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)Reduced all its flights to and from South Korea, Thailand, Iraq and ItalyFrom February 24 until further notice
Mongolia’s National Emergency CommissionHalted all flights from South Korea and also will block the entry through its bordersFrom February 24 until   March 2
Oman’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)Halted all flights from and to IranFrom February 24 until further notice
Qatar Airways (QR)Put passengers who return from Iran or South Korea in quarantineFrom February 3 until at leats eight hours
Royal Jordanian Airlines (RJ)Suspended flights between Amman and Rome until further notice startingFrom February 26
Tajikistan (TJ)Suspended all flights to and from Iran until the virus situation there stabilizesUntil February 24
Tunisia (TUN)Suspended some flights to ItalyFrom February 24 until further notice
Turkey’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)Announced a suspension on its routes to Iran until further noticeFrom February 24 until further notice
Turkish Airlines (TK)Extended a cancelation of flights to Iran, with the exception to flights to TehranUntil March 10
United Airlines (UA)Added South Korea and Japan to travel waiver list, but is not canceling flightsFrom February 28
Wizz Air (W6)Suspended routes to ItalyFrom February 27 throughout April

*According to Reuters and Forbes