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  • Dylan Intwala, AIT

COVID-19’s Impact on Airlines & Airports

The COVID-19 Pandemic has seized many businesses around the world. A mix of quarantine protocols, social distancing methods, and a shift in influence from physical to online shopping has meant that many businesses have seen their financial statements turn from profit to loss. And at the center of all of this? Airlines and airports, two huge sectors which rely on cramming hundreds of people into metal tubes which fly thousands of feet in the air. 6-foot social distancing protocols meant that airlines could only fit limited passengers on board, while high infection rates and potentially serious illnesses scared away potential flyers from booking tickets. Millions in airline industry profits have been swept away by the raging virus. But how bad were the effects of COVID-19 on airlines and airports? Are they recoverable?

Almost directly after the announcement of a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020, airlines became increasingly cautious with their operations. Flight schedules were upended as airlines cut unnecessary costs, and tickets were limited to high-importance travelers (doctors, medical staff, etc.). With lockdowns underway, some airlines even fully ceased operations in an effort to save money. As the pandemic raged on, airlines had to restart some level of normal operations to stay afloat. Many resumed closer to normal schedules in the summer of 2020, but having already lost so much money, it was a slow and shaky start. The entire market of U.S. airlines lost $35 billion in 2020 alone. Some airlines survived, but others closed for good. Air Italy, Trans States Airlines, CityJet, German Airways, LATAM Airlines Group, and Alitalia are just some star names that were forced to terminate operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Essentially, there was not a single airline that didn’t go bankrupt or reduce operations during the pandemic. What was the one thing saving all airlines from going zip? Cargo. The sharp incline in online shopping meant goods had to be shipped around the world. Trains, trucks, and cargo planes had a sharp rise in importance. Cargo was almost the only factor keeping airlines afloat during this financially rocky period. There was, however, a catch in this; most of the world’s cargo actually travels in the underbellies of passenger planes. Many airline carriers who planned to halt their services in an effort to save money remained in the air due to cargo requirements. But the cargo could only fill up a limited amount of space on the aircraft, which meant these flights brought in far less revenue than passenger travel would have. As a result, over 60% of all flights were canceled by U.S carriers from March to December of 2020 alone. High-ranking officials such as United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, EasyJet’s CEO Johan Lundgren, and Qantas CEO Alan Joyce identified the airline recession during the pandemic as the worst crisis in the airline industry’s history.

Another problem? Travel restrictions. As countries slowly began to restart their transport services, heavy restrictions and, at times, full denials were set in place against passengers flying from or to potentially high-risk countries. Airlines were forced to enhance cleaning protocols, and, at the very beginning of the restart, had to distance passengers by leaving middle seats in each row open with only the aisle and window seats occupied. Additionally, when COVID-19 vaccines began to roll out, many airlines soon mandated that passengers either be vaccinated or under a two-week quarantine to travel. A potential passenger who didn’t meet either of these requirements wouldn’t be allowed on a flight.

As the world begins to open up day by day, some researchers have determined that the airline industry will take the longest to return to normal operations and profit margins, due to continued international and domestic restrictions (quarantine requirements, vaccine requirements, etc) and a continued fear many passengers maintain about traveling freely while the pandemic continues. A delay in aircraft manufacturing due to shutdowns, limited crew availability, and reductions in passengers all add up to catastrophe for many airlines around the world. It will take some time, but people will eventually return to traveling across the world. The question now is; can airlines survive until then?

Works Cited:

A look at undergraduate research: Covid-19's impact on the airline industry. General Studies A Look at Undergraduate Research Covid19s Impact on the Airline Industry Comments. (n.d.). Retrieved May 10, 2022, from

Bouwer, J., Saxon, S., & Wittkamp, N. (2021, September 14). Back to the future? airline sector poised for Change Post-covid-19. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved May 10, 2022, from

Hotle, S., & Mumbower, S. (2020, December 9). The impact of covid-19 on domestic U.S. Air Travel Operations and commercial airport service. Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Retrieved May 10, 2022, from

Lesliejosephs. (2021, January 1). U.S. airlines' 2020 losses expected to top $35 billion as pandemic threatens another difficult year. CNBC. Retrieved May 10, 2022, from

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