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Air travel won't return to pre-coronvirus levels until 2023, airline group predicts

May 14, 2020
4 min read
United Planes Sit Parked At Denver International Airport, As The Coronavirus Pandemic Severely Halts Airline Travel
Air travel won't return to pre-coronvirus levels until 2023, airline group predicts
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While Florida beaches and Iceland's Blue Lagoon may tempt some travelers to get off their couches and fly somewhere this summer, air travelers are not expected to return to the skies in large numbers anytime soon.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the largest global airline organization, does not believe traffic numbers to return to pre-coronavirus pandemic levels until around 2023, according to its latest forecast. Domestic flyers in markets like China and the U.S. will return first in about two years and international flyers a year or two later by 2024.

“We are eager to fly," IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac said during a briefing on Wednesday. But eagerness is not enough, at least not yet, to get those fearful of COVID-19 or who have lost their jobs back on planes.

Get Coronavirus travel updates. Stay on top of industry impacts, flight cancellations, and more.

Some destinations are or plan to be open for at least part of the summer. Beaches are open in parts of Florida and Allegiant Air, JetBlue Airways and Spirit Airlines — all of which cater primarily to non-business travelers — are seeing small but noticeable increases in the number of people on flights to the state.

In Europe, the European Union's economic affairs commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said Wednesday that the bloc "will have a summer tourist season." Any opening, however, will come with clear health and safety guidelines to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

What is not yet clear is whether any EU reopening would welcome both Americans and Europeans, or focus on something of a "travel bubble" among member states.

One possibility for summer holidays is the approach proposed by Iceland. The island hopes to reopen for visitors by June 15 with either mandatory COVID-19 tests or 14-day quarantines upon arrival.

Related: When will international travel return? A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery

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Any summer travel will be a welcome relief to airlines. U.S. carriers are losing as much as $50 million a day, hoping simply to get to a break-even point by year's end. While those numbers do not include the relief provided by the federal government's $2 trillion coronavirus aid package, the CARES Act, carriers are still preparing for significant service cuts and layoffs this fall.

Alaska Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines have retired some older jets to prepare for a smaller future. These include the Airbus A319s Alaska inherited from Virgin America in 2016, and American's entire fleet of Boeing 757s and 767s. Aviation fans will especially miss Delta's McDonnell Douglas MD-88s and MD-90s that operate their last flights on June 2.

And at United Airlines, the carrier's upgrade-friendly premium 757-200s with 28 lie-flat business class seats are in long-term storage with little chance that they will come back.

Related: United’s premium Boeing 757s, some 767s going to ‘long-term storage’

One sign that travel is really back will come when major destinations, like Disney World and hotels on the Las Vegas Strip reopen. But, as of yet, there is no official timeline for either.

And even when Disney and Las Vegas casinos reopen, will there be caps on the number of people in the spirit of social distancing? Disney is likely to take a phased approach to reopening its parks and resorts in Orlando that could take months.

"COVID’s effects on air travel are certainly goes to last a couple of years with no quick rebound to 2019 levels," said IATA chief economist Brian Pearce on Wednesday.

Related: Travelers starting to 'want to move' again, say Spirit, JetBlue execs

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