Stock London Heathrow Airport UK Britain passengers
The UK government is getting a lot of heat from airline chiefs over lopsided priorities in allowing travel without quarantine. Image Credit: AP

London: At the start of the summer, countries that were quicker to vaccinate their populations against COVID-19 were expected to be among the first to hit the beaches once international travel began to pick up.

It hasn't always worked out that way, according to flight-tracking firm OAG. While some nations like the US and Spain have followed up swift inoculation campaigns with a corresponding uptick in air travel, others such as Canada and the UK have been more cautious.

Shots vs. flights

OAG chief analyst John Grant says "smart" countries that have used vaccine access to spur travel and allow carriers to offer at least 50 per cent of their usual international seating. Then there are the "no hopers", predominantly in Asia and Latin America, where vaccination rates are low and cross-border flights remain severely limited.

But "risk-takers" such as Mexico have let foreign flights storm back almost to pre-Covid levels even though the bulk of the population has yet to get a shot. This underscores the extent to which air travel in the COVID-19 era remains dependent on government policies. The UK, for example, tightened its borders to fight the delta variant, while the neighboring European Union has recovered more of its pre-pandemic tourism, despite a slower distribution of shots.

A "digital passport" has made it easier to move around within the bloc.

In Asia, the 'Covid Zero' approach that's favored tight lockdowns over inoculation campaigns is being rethought - with Singapore dramatically ramping up its vaccine effort - but the results haven't yet resulted in a re-establishment of international connections. The US, whose flight rebound has been based on its huge domestic market, could get a further boost after President Joe Biden said he's considering lifting a ban on travel from Europe.

This would open up the coveted trans-Atlantic market, and give airlines on both sides of the ocean, from Air France-KLM to Deutsche Lufthansa AG to United Airlines Holdings Inc., a shot in the arm.

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What's happening in air travel

The pace of global recovery is slowing. Aviation capacity climbed less than 1 percentage point over the past week, to about 67 per cent of 2019 levels, according to Bloomberg's weekly flight tracker, which uses OAG data to monitor the pulse of the comeback. The increase was the smallest in four weeks.

Europe's reopening continues to build, and the region stands at about 61 per cent of 2019 levels, the highest it's been since the start of the pandemic. It's still too soon to say how far the progress will extend by summer's end.

Ryanair Holdings Plc expects to recover 80 per cent of its pre-pandemic capacity by then, said Eddie Wilson, head of the airline group's main unit. Air travel is "gradually making its way back and I think that August will really show the level of the snapback," he said this week at an online event staged by CAPA (Centre for Aviation).

The Irish carrier is Europe's biggest low-cost airline. It's made inroads in Italy, where Air Italy has shut down and bankrupt flag-carrier Alitalia SpA is being reorganized. Ryanair and smaller rival Wizz Air Holdings stand to pick up more market share across the region as weaker competitors step back.

EasyJet plc, which was more than double the size of Wizz at the start of the pandemic, has seen the gap shrink to almost nothing. The carrier has been held back by its reliance on its home UK market, where shifting rules and bad luck with the delta variant have stifled demand. (There's hope of relief come Monday, when schools let out and double-vaccinated residents will be allowed to return to England without quarantine from more than 100 medium-risk countries.)

EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren lashed out at the government on Wednesday for allowing people to go out to nightclubs in England without a mask or social distancing, while placing Spain's Balearic islands including Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza, on the so-called 'amber list' that requires a 10-day quarantine on return unless the traveler has received two vaccine doses. "Yet again, we see this double standard where travel is treated differently to the domestic economy," Lundgren said.

With its reliance on the UK sector, EasyJet has been particularly affected by the many requirements on travel in the country. Image Credit: AP

Business travel

The overlapping segments of long-distance and business travel that drive premium priced ticket sales make up a big part of the missing 33 per cent of global capacity, and there's a strong debate on how soon and to what degree they will come back.

Delta Air Lines Inc. CEO Ed Bastian weighed in this week as the airline reported its first quarterly profit on a pretax basis of the pandemic, boosted by government aid. The US carrier expects domestic corporate travel to recover to 60 per cent of 2019 levels by September, helping to drive a profit recovery, up from 40 per cent in June and 20 per cent in March. "It's accelerating just like we saw in the US with consumers," Bastian said in an interview.

Early September also is when the executive expects many corporations to fully re-open their offices and for workers to return. "Then when international markets are open, particularly European markets to the US, that's another big piece of demand," he said. "As those markets open, we're going to see significant growth in business travel."