The likes of EasyJet and Ryanair have bee quick to further cut their UK services. UK's third lockdown will further delay any turnaround in fortunes for the airline industry. Image Credit: AFP

London: Airlines kicked off 2021 by shrinking their already meagre UK schedules, prompted by a new lockdown and the prospect of further restrictions on travel abroad.

EasyJet, Britain's biggest discount carrier, pared back its flying programme to prioritize essential connections between key UK cities and "a small number of international routes". British Airways said it'll keep crucial links open, while TUI AG halted all package holiday tours from the UK through mid-February, when the new lockdown is set to end.

A spokeswoman for Wizz Air Holdings Plc, which has been adding UK bases in an effort to emerge stronger from the pandemic, said it will review capacity to ensure that it remains appropriate to demand.

STOCK Ryanair
Airlines will need to make some heavy re-arrangements to keep their fleets busy, with services to the UK cut off until next month. Image Credit: AFP

February respite

The fast-spreading virus strain that's driven up the number of UK cases has also dashed hopes of relief from 2020's unrelenting downturn. Prime Minister Boris Johnson late Monday announced a new coronavirus lockdown that will force most people to stay at home until mid-February, when a vaccine rollout reaches enough to stem the worst infection rates since the start of the outbreak.

"Last night's news will see those numbers go down further," Grant said. "Whilst the news is no surprise and most airlines and airports had been expecting this to happen, it is nevertheless another setback to the recovery."

EasyJet had already reduced its schedule for next week by one-third and Ryanair Holdings, Europe's biggest discounter, by two-thirds, said John Grant, senior analyst at travel data provider OAG.

Full on review

British Airways will review its schedule while keeping key air connections open, a spokesman said.

TUI, the German tour operator with a big base of British customers, had already culled most of its UK programme due to the pandemic, with only some destinations including St. Lucia, Cuba and Aruba served. These trips have now been canceled.

Measures to further restrict international travel from the UK are in the works, including talks with authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on coordinated curbs, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said on LBC Radio.

The plans include requiring passengers arriving in the country to present a negative coronavirus test, the Times newspaper reported. The government said on its website that all leisure travel is forbidden and advised that UK residents should check with their travel operator on arrangements for returning.

Disruption to carriers is unlikely to be as great as that suffered last spring, when fleets were grounded across the world. EasyJet, which has bases and operations across Europe, said the impact might be similar to that of a month-long lockdown in the UK in November, though that involved less severe measures with schools still open.

Free fall

Ryanair, which has its biggest base at London Stansted airport, revealed that its passenger count tumbled 66 per cent to 52.1 million in 2020. Even in December the Dublin-based company was operating only 22 per cent of its usual schedule.

Wizz separately posted a 58 per cent decline, though with occupancy level of just 75 per cent compared with 81 per cent at Ryanair.

"Most airlines were resigned to the first quarter of this year being very weak, with no real recovery, so from that perspective many had already planned their networks accordingly," said OAG's Grant. "It's unlikely that we will see any recovery in that capacity until the end of March."