If you say your summer holidays were lacklustre in an era of pandemic-induced staycations, spare a thought for the world’s airlines.

The industry typically earns about 40% of its profits in the third calendar quarter alone, as the surge in travel gives carriers the chance to finally fill up aircraft at prices that can pay off their wage, fuel and debt bills.

There were aspirations a while back that there might be enough of a recovery from coronavirus lockdowns in the three months to September to keep airlines’ heads above water. The 18% improvement in a Bloomberg index of world airline stocks in August was the best performance for the benchmark since it was first compiled 20 years ago.

Some hope. As the first chills of winter arrive, it’s increasingly clear that the industry is as deep in the hole as it ever was.

EasyJet was one of the carriers better placed to survive thanks to its low cost structure and strong balance sheet. Nonetheless, it’s in talks with the British government about a second slug of state support after a £600m state-guaranteed loan earlier in the year, a person familiar with the matter said. Philippines-based Cebu Air is raising $500m in bonds and preferred shares after the government ruled out taking over troubled airlines.

Malaysian-based discount rival AirAsia Group announced a restructuring of its long-haul affiliate AirAsia X last week while ceasing operations on its Japanese carrier. It also ended funding for AirAsia India, people familiar with the matter said. Its domestic competitor, state-owned Malaysia Airlines, is talking to creditors about a restructuring and one or other Malaysian carrier may fail by the end of the year, according to the country’s aviation regulator.

In the US, the industry has been kept on life support since the Congress passed a bailout bill in March — but that money has now run out. Prospects of a second round of support, already shaky while many other industries are suffering, are even more in jeopardy after House speaker Nancy Pelosi tied it to the on-again, off-again discussions of a wider stimulus bill amid a packed pre-election legislative calendar.

The grim truth is that the worst period for the aviation industry is probably ahead of it, rather than behind

European and North American airlines have cut domestic travel schedules for the December quarter by 45%, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst George Ferguson, and any hope that the pandemic is on the brink of vanishing seems vain at this point. Deaths from Covid-19, after trending downward since early August, have been picking up again in recent weeks. The 338,779 new cases reported by the World Health Organisation on Thursday was a record daily increase.

The grim truth is that the worst period for the aviation industry is probably ahead of it, rather than behind. For months now, carriers have been coasting on their existing bank balances, the early rounds of bailout money received from governments and investors, and the relatively easy cost-cutting of saved fuel and maintenance costs and route and landing fees. The actions taken to date have been drastic — laying off workers, cutting routes, mothballing aircraft — but the real challenge will come over the coming months, as carriers have to make hard choices before cash dwindles to zero.

Airlines burnt through $51bn in the June quarter and will eat a further $77bn in cash in the six months to December, according to analysis last week by the International Air Transport Association (Iata). That makes up about 80% of the $162bn of bailout money they’ve already received, and airlines won’t return to pre-Covid traffic levels until 2024. During 2021, they’ll still be going through $5bn-$6bn of cash a month, according to Iata.

Officials and executives who have been crossing their fingers that aviation will survive this without huge state intervention should start facing reality.

Even if traffic returns overnight, airlines will have to find a way of paying the colossal debts incurred this year. The most obvious way is to increase fares, but that risks driving away passengers just when they need to be tempted back on board. Without dramatic changes, almost every airline on the planet faces the spiral of weak revenues, poor service, fat interest payments and irreducible debt associated with sclerotic state-owned carriers like Air India and Alitalia.

Governments may soon have to choose whether to restructure, nationalise or liquidate a wave of failing airlines, or else loosen their cherished ownership restrictions that have hitherto prevented the creation of truly transcontinental giants. Passengers have done well from the relatively laissez-faire aviation industry that’s existed since the early 1980s. In the current crisis, though, few private companies will be strong enough to survive on their own.


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