Coronavirus: Global shutdown 'very unlikely' as global airlines hope for the best and prepare for the worst

  • Video report by ITV News Business and Economics Editor Joel Hills

The chief executives of Europe’s largest airlines flew into Brussels for a conference on sustainability, but the questions they got from journalists were focused on a new threat to the industry’s future - coronavirus.

Ryanair, Easyjet, Lufthansa and British Airways are not only scrambling to deal with the travel restrictions that governments are imposing - but they are also dealing with a slump in bookings.

Italy has borne the brunt of the slump in demand. Airports are still open but flights are being cancelled.

Ryanair admits that some of its aircraft to and from Italy are flying less than half empty, as passengers decide not to show up.

But the unease is more widespread. Ryanair’s ticket sales were down 25% across all of its European operations last week.

This is clearly unsustainable but the airline’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, is working on the assumption that upheaval is temporary

"We think things will have calmed down by the time the Easter school holidays arrive," he told ITV News.

"If [the virus] runs through three or six months then it will have a very significant effect on the industry, not unlike a 9/11. But I struggle to see how it will prevail for three or six months, as temperatures rise around Europe."

O’Leary is hoping for the best but the scale of what’s to come is unknowable. As it stands, anyone booking flights for a summer holiday is taking a leap of faith.

He insists sales for June, July and August are holding up and that, even in as worst case scenario, a global shutdown of the airline industry is "very unlikely".

Airlines were up against it even before the coronavirus outbreak.

Flybe asked the government for an emergency loan in January but even now the big airlines insist the taxpayer shouldn’t bailout those who struggle.

"I think there airlines would have gone out of business regardless of the Coronavirus. I think that for weak airlines this will accelerate their demise," says Willie Walsh, the CEO of International Airlines, the owner of British Airways.

"Flybe’s business model didn’t work. The idea government support is required is complete nonsense. Governments shouldn’t intervene to bail out weak and unsustainable airlines."

As it stands, the big airlines believe the industry can tough it out without help from the government but that position could change.

"We’re still early in the process" says Johan Lundgren, the chief executive of Easyjet.

"But no government should bail out individual airlines, it’s better to put together a tax design that makes it clearer for companies to invest."

Airlines are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. Pay and recruitment has being frozen; cabin crew and pilots are being asked to take voluntary, unpaid leave.

A glance and their share prices tells you investors fear the worst.