Number of flights down, air fares up, European aviation report reveals

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Compared to October 2021, international travel is doing quite well this month. Some strict Covid rules still apply – keeping China off limits to tourists, and this week forcing an ‘Inca cruise’ to bypass Peru. But bear in mind that a year ago Peru was on the UK’s ‘red list’, forcing returning holidaymakers into hotel quarantine at a cost of £2,285 for travelers alone.

The summer of 2022 was meant to be the big rebound, with vacationers making up for lost sunshine and families previously separated by distance and coronavirus-related travel restrictions coming together.

As you are probably well aware, peak months have been reduced to chaos in some places, with British Airways cutting tens of thousands of flights from its London Heathrow schedules and easyJet canceling hundreds more at short notice at its hub Principal, London Gatwick.

Airlines and airports descended into acrimony, with the long-suffering passenger caught in the middle (or, more likely, waiting in line for hours or wondering where their luggage might be).

Now some figures add arithmetic evidence to anecdotal accounts. Eurocontrol has unveiled its snapshot of the summer in its new forecast update for 2022-28. The top line: flight movements down, airfares up. But the numbers are worth digging into.

Until April 2022, airfares had not increased significantly (in real terms) compared to three years earlier, before the coronavirus pandemic. Then, says Eurocontrol: “Airline ticket prices have started to increase since May 2022.” In July, ticket prices were 15% higher (plus inflation) than 2019 rates.

Something else happened in May. Flight movements hit 86% of 2019 levels that month and have remained eerily close to that percentage ever since. In August, aviation briefly hit 88%, but has now stabilized at 87%, representing one in eight flights removed.

A compelling reason why airlines really don’t want to add too much capacity: “Jet fuel prices plunged at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak – from 50c per liter to just 15c by April 2020.” With the restart of demand, prices recorded a rapid surge to a record price of around €1 per liter in June 2022,” explains Eurocontrol.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also severely distorted flight patterns. With much of Europe-Asia air traffic concentrated in southeastern Europe, overflights of Hungary (for example) have increased by 30% while 38% fewer planes are flying over Poland.

As for Eurocontrol’s forecast, restrictions on Ukrainian, Russian, Belarusian and Moldovan airspace “will remain until the end of the horizon” in 2028.

The base (or mid-range) forecast also assumes weak growth, high inflation and a “significant number” of countries in recession next year.

Worrying for some airlines, Eurocontrol expects business travel to be “partly replaced by digital alternatives”. To encourage the green lobby, “growing environmental concerns in some European states” will limit the number of flights.

Eurocontrol predicts flights will finally return to pre-pandemic levels in 2025 and slowly increase to 7% more by 2028. For an industry used to a steady 4-5% annual increase, this is a performance dismal – which results in a continuation of less choice and higher prices than you and I might like.

And that’s without the forecasters parting thought of unquantifiable threats: “Terrorist attacks, banning one country on another, wars and natural disasters.”

Have a good trip.

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