Arrivals facemasks UK London airport
The UK is stopping all non-business trips to block a second wave of pandemic. Airlines are having to make some heavy adjustments in response. Image Credit: AFP

London: Airlines have begun slashing capacity on UK routes as the country prepares to enter a second coronavirus lockdown that will outlaw all non-business trips.

While it's still unclear how Britain will enforce the ban, carriers will cut seating by 70 per cent in coming few days, based on scheduling estimates from travel-data specialist OAG. EasyJet, the UK's biggest discount airline, is scrapping all but a handful of services to locations, including the Spanish island of Tenerife, Portugal's Algarve, and cities such as Amsterdam, according to its website.

Private-jet operators, by contrast, are seeing a jump in last-minute bookings from wealthy families desperate to beat the lockdown, with charter specialist Air Partner plc reporting a "sharp surge" in interest from people based in the UK but with second homes in the Canary Islands.

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Bleak winter and beyond

"The impact of this sudden lockdown will ripple through consumer confidence for the rest of the winter season," said John Grant, a senior analyst at OAG. "Unless there is finally some intervention from the UK government then the future will remain bleak for probably most of 2021 based on the damage, that will be done in the next four weeks."

Britain will impose the travel ban from midnight Thursday until December 2 as part of a wider lockdown aimed at stemming a resurgence of COVID-19. Carriers are already reeling from the pandemic, having cut thousands of jobs, retired hundreds of planes and turned to capital markets and asset sales to survive the slump.

Drastic drops

Some airlines will cease all flights as a result of the new UK stance, while others, like Dubai-based Emirates and American Airlines Group Inc., will likely continue flying less frequently to their hub airports, Grant said.

The industry had already begun to significantly cut back on winter schedules even before the latest lockdowns, with 145 million seats removed from schedules between September 30 and November 2, according to OAG. EasyJet will operate just three flights for the rest of November from Faro, Portugal, to London Gatwick airport, according to its online timetable, yet plans daily flights the following month.

Tenerife, the most popular of the Canary Islands, which had been exempted from UK quarantine requirements when the new lockdown was announced, will see flights slashed to just a dozen, while the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt will have just one service to Gatwick in the month.

Air Partner, which is based at Gatwick, said Boris Johnson's announcement prompted an immediate jump in interest in private flights out of the UK before Thursday. "We have also started to receive early inquiries for private jet bookings in December, as flyers want to know they have these secured so that they can travel during the Christmas period when it is hoped some restrictions will be lifted," it said in an email.

Others too

Britain isn't alone in calling a halt to most travel for citizens, with Germany and France also imposing restrictions. France went into a lockdown last week that includes a closing of all non-essential shops and a travel ban other than for extenuating circumstances.

Fraport AG, which operates Frankfurt airport, expects to have about 25,000 passengers a day flying through, versus the usual 200,000, after Germany restricted most travel. The company cut its full-year passenger target to as low as 18 million on the basis of a German lockdown that began Monday, having said only last week that it anticipated a total approaching 20 million.