(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Covid-19 became a pandemic because airplane passengers carried the new coronavirus with them around the world. As that became clear, airlines grounded nearly all of their fleets, governments issued travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines, and tourist attractions and conferences closed down. With no reason to fly, a quick recovery for air travel seemed unlikely. Warren Buffett dumped his airline stocks, claiming that the “world has changed.”
Passengers also wouldn’t feel safe packed inside a metal tube for hours, would they?
Happily for the industry, if not for the climate, the seemingly insurmountable barriers to air travel have begun to look less daunting. “We believe the worst is behind us, and we’re on the uptick,” American Airlines Group Inc.’s boss, Doug Parker, said after a surge in travel over the U.S. Memorial Day holiday weekend.
Investors have taken notice. The Bloomberg Americas Airlines stocks index has rebounded by almost one-third from the mid-May low, and European carriers have made similar gains. Shares in German tour operator Tui AG have risen too.
Such optimism feels jarring when airlines, American Airlines included, are poised to cut thousands of jobs. Most are still burning huge amounts of cash. Deutsche Lufthansa AG needs a 9 billion-euro ($10 billion) bailout, and Latam Airlines Group SA joined Latin American peer Avianca Holdings SA in filing for bankruptcy last week.
But Parker is probably right to expect a continued recovery, at least on domestic and short-haul routes. This won’t be enough to put debt-laden airlines on a secure footing, and a full demand recovery probably won’t happen for a couple more years. But, right now, a desperate industry will take any good news it can get. The rigorous hygiene measures airlines have announced should go a long way toward restoring passenger confidence.
European budget carrier Ryanair Holdings Plc expects to operate at 40% of normal capacity from July, and the way bookings are shaping up suggests those planes will probably be at least half full. EasyJet Plc sees “encouraging” trends and notes that winter bookings are higher than usual for this time of year, although part of that may be because people have refund vouchers to use and are rebooking cancelled trips.
Ryanair’s extensive summer flight schedule had seemed premature a couple of weeks ago, but the travel restrictions that kept Europeans from moving around the continent are being relaxed. Starting in July, Spain is set to drop its requirement for international arrivals to quarantine for 14 days. Britain imposed a similar rule but is under immense pressure to abandon it. Travel between Europe and the U.S. will take longer to open up, but even on this there are encouraging signs of political will to get people flying again.
A month ago, United Airlines Holdings Inc.’s chief executive officer, Scott Kirby, lamented that there wouldn’t be a recovery in flying until attractions like Disney World and the Paris museums were open again.
Well, they will be soon. It’s already possible to visit the Acropolis in Athens and St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Paris’s parks and museums are set to reopen from June. The French capital is usually swamped with tourists at this time of year, so there’s an incentive for travelers to get there first. Walt Disney World expects to reopen its Florida park from July, albeit with compulsory face masks and a ban on hugging your favorite Disney character.
I’ve written before about how things like wearing masks and having to ask permission to use the toilet will make flying even less enjoyable. But these measures may make passengers feel safer. For example, while the gowns and other personal protective equipment issued to Emirates’ cabin crew are a little intimidating, they’re likely to put some nervous flyers at ease.
As with SARS almost two decades ago, there are understandable concerns about catching coronavirus within the aircraft cabin, most likely from someone seated close by. The evidence isn’t comprehensive or conclusive, but so far there are surprisingly few documented cases of this happening with Covid-19. Airline industry body IATA says it knows of only one case where a person transmitted the virus to more than one person on board. Not surprisingly, plane manufacturers Airbus SE and Boeing Co. are studying the subject intensively.
There are other plausible reasons why flying might be safer than you’d think: The air is filtered and frequently replenished from outside, seats act as somewhat of a barrier and passengers don’t move around the cabin much. Singing, yelling and talking loudly — contributors to so-called super-spreader infection events — are a big faux pas when you fly. Many passengers would still prefer the middle seat to be empty, but as I’ve written before, unless ticket prices rise, that would severely hamper airlines’ ability to break even.
Of course, the longer someone’s on board, the greater the chance they’re exposed to infection. Hence people may feel comfortable flying domestic and short-haul before they’re willing to fly halfway around the globe.
Companies will probably take longer to get comfortable with the risk (and potential liability) of their employees flying for business. About half the corporate clients American Airlines surveyed still have a travel ban, although that’s down from two-thirds at the peak of the crisis. Millions of potential passengers have also lost their jobs and won’t feel able to splash out on holidays.
And then there are the psychological scars from the prolonged lockdown. Being outside now feels a lot safer than being in any kind of confined space. A staycation in a local Airbnb might feel preferable to getting on a plane.
For those willing to take the risk, and who can find adequate travel insurance, a rare opportunity awaits. Want to see Venice without the crowds? Now’s your chance.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies. He previously worked for the Financial Times.
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