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Decommissioned and suspended Air Canada commercial aircrafts are seen stored in Pinal Airpark on May 16, 2020 in Marana, Arizona. Pinal Airpark is the largest commercial aircraft storage facility in the world, currently holding increased numbers of aircraft in response to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)Christian Petersen/Getty Images

COVID-19 vaccines and tests offer hope the airline industry will see customers return in 2021, but it will be several years before the industry can shake off the devastation caused by the pandemic.

The world’s airlines have grounded 30 per cent of their fleets, laid off thousands of employees and amassed billions of dollars in debt to survive the downturn. A resurgent pandemic, new and varied border closings, consumer gloom and a poor economy all threaten to prolong the misery for airlines, which will not break even until late 2021, according to the International Air Transport Association.

A full recovery to 2019 passenger levels will not happen until perhaps 2024, IATA says, although estimates vary. That’s because the usual measures airlines use to predict demand for seats and flights – the economy, past sales, per-seat profits and more – have been replaced.

Seat sales are now dictated by consumers’ fear of becoming sick or stranded, and by government travel restrictions, which can change daily.

This means airlines have to change the way they plan their schedules, and be set to make last-minute cancellations or additions to meet demand. Amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, travellers are less likely to book long term, and will make their travel plans based on the immediate state of the pandemic and public-health rules.

“The way that airlines have forecast demand in the past is out of the window, that’s absolutely changed,” said Jeremy Bowen, chief executive of Cirium, an aviation consultancy.

Pandemic has affected planes in service

Number of aircraft in service by type and operator

Type

Operator

Jan. 1, 2020

Dec. 17, 2020

737 NG

WestJet

A320

Air Canada

787

Air Canada

DHC-8

Porter

777

Air Canada

A330

Air Transat

A321

Air Canada

E190

Air Canada

n/a

A319

Air Canada

A321

Air Transat

A330

Air Canada

737 NG

Air Transat

0

A310

Air Transat

0

767

Air Canada

n/a

767

WestJet

0

787

WestJet

A220*

Air Canada

0

737 Max

WestJet

0

0

737 Max

Air Canada

0

0

20

40

60

80

100

120

*CSeries

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: cirium

Pandemic has affected planes in service

Number of aircraft in service by type and operator

Type

Operator

In service

Jan. 1, 2020

Dec. 17, 2020

737 NG

WestJet

A320

Air Canada

787

Air Canada

DHC-8

Porter Airlines

777

Air Canada

A330

Air Transat

A321

Air Canada

E190

Air Canada

n/a

A319

Air Canada

A321

Air Transat

A330

Air Canada

737 NG

Air Transat

0

A310

Air Transat

0

767

Air Canada

n/a

767

WestJet

0

787

WestJet

A220*

Air Canada

0

737 Max

WestJet

0

0

737 Max

Air Canada

0

0

20

40

60

80

100

120

*CSeries

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: cirium

Pandemic has affected planes in service

Number of aircraft in service by type and operator

Type

Operator

In service

Jan. 1, 2020

Dec. 17, 2020

737 NG

WestJet

A320

Air Canada

787

Air Canada

DHC-8

Porter Airlines

777

Air Canada

A330

Air Transat

A321

Air Canada

E190

Air Canada

n/a

A319

Air Canada

A321

Air Transat

A330

Air Canada

737 NG

Air Transat

0

A310

Air Transat

0

767

Air Canada

n/a

767

WestJet

0

787

WestJet

A220*

Air Canada

0

737 Max

WestJet

0

0

737 Max

Air Canada

0

0

20

40

60

80

100

120

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: cirium

*CSeries

Now, airlines will schedule flights six to eight weeks in advance, instead of six months or a year ahead, in order to be able to quickly add or remove flights based on seat sales, Mr. Bowen said.

About 40 per cent of airline bookings in the Northern Hemisphere in August and September were made just three days before the flight, Mr. Bowen said. “As an airline, it’s virtually impossible to know whether to cancel that flight and consolidate it with another one, or hold your nerve and hope that it is going to book and you can fly profitably in three days. So the ways of forecasting demand are changing and will continue to change over the next two to three years.”

The data airlines use to predict demand will change, as well. Social media chatter about destinations, and data from Google searches for resorts, seat prices and travel websites will rise in importance. “Those things didn’t used to be primary sources. They now are because there’s nothing else to go on,” Mr. Bowen said.

Narrow-body, single-aisle aircraft will dominate the fleets of most airlines, replacing the fuel-guzzling wide-body planes, analysts say.

The Airbus and Boeing 737 Max planes – loved for their long range and fuel efficiency – will serve on medium-length and even long-haul flights as airlines rid their fleets of older Boeing 747s and 767s, which are larger and less fuel efficient.

About 30 per cent of the world’s fleet is in storage, and the planes still flying are carrying fewer passengers and flying less often, Cirium says.

As of Dec. 17, Air Canada had 36 planes parked in Arizona and 11 in Kansas City, where warm weather makes storage and maintenance easier. Air Transat had six planes parked in Brazil, while WestJet had six in Arizona. Porter Airlines has 27 planes parked at Toronto’s Billy Bishop airport and one in Thunder Bay.

In total, Canada’s four biggest airlines had 180 of their 345 planes in storage. Air Canada has said it will retire 79 of its aircraft, while its rivals are expected to shed several as well.

About 600 to 700 planes around the world are inactive, many waiting to be cut up for parts or scrap metal, said Richard Brown, managing director at U.K.-based aviation consultancy Naveo Ltd. Other aircraft will be returned to service as needed.

“The airlines are playing a wait and see game at the moment,” Mr. Brown said. “And the big challenge for the airlines is rightsizing their fleet for the demand that will come back.”

Air Transat has been retiring its wide-body Airbus planes, the A310 and A330, and its older Boeing 737s, as it takes delivery of Airbus A321 Neos, a narrow-body model that can cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Air Canada, which is retiring the Boeing 767, Airbus A319 and Embraer 190, is expected to reintroduce its 24 737 Max planes when safety changes that were made after two other airlines suffered fatal 737 Max crashes are approved by Ottawa. Air Canada will also take control of Air Transat’s updated fleet if regulators approve its takeover.

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