The coronavirus pandemic swept across the airline industry, upending fleet, route, and passenger number predictions for years to come. Commercial air travel, alongside tourism, is the worst-hit business in these unusual times of restricted travel, lockdowns, social distancing, and online-only business conferences.
Airlines and aircraft manufacturers face a few years of losses and cost cuts before air travel numbers return to pre-crisis levels. In these several years of a marked downturn for the industry, demand for jet fuel is expected to be the last oil product to see demand recover to levels from 2019.
While oil demand for road transportation already shows signs of recovery as people prefer commuting with their own cars rather than using public transport, demand for jet fuel will probably take much longer—possibly years—to recover, analysts say.
The Airline Business Has Already Changed
The COVID-19 pandemic has already brought significant changes to the way the business operates, according to Forbes Senior Contributor Ted Reed.
Passenger traffic on airlines has dropped off a cliff since countries moved to restrict inbound travel in an effort to flatten the curve of infections. In the United States, for example, total traveler throughput at security was just 253,807 this past Sunday, compared to 2,620,276 passengers who cleared security at airports on the same day last year, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). In other words, the passenger numbers in mid-May were less than 10 percent of the typical day at U.S. airports last year.
The airlines, of course, are feeling the pinch, and so are aircraft manufacturers. While U.S. airlines have an obligation not to lay off staff at least until end-September as a condition to receive U.S. grants, they are warning that layoffs will be coming after that.
“October 1st is likely to emerge as one of the darkest days in history for airline labor,” JPMorgan Chase said earlier this month, as carried by Reuters.
At Delta Air Lines, for example, 37,000 employees, more than one-third of the workforce, have elected to take voluntary unpaid leaves ranging from 30 days to one year, CEO Ed Bastian said on the earnings call in April.
Delta was burning cash at a rate of $100 million per day in March, and expected that cash-burn rate at $50 million a day in May, Bastian added. Related: Oil Industry Faces Looming Threat Of Involuntary Outages
Outside the United States, airlines are already taking an ax to payroll numbers. IAG, the owner of British Airways, warned in early May that it is likely that there would be redundancies of up to 12,000 British Airways’ employees. Europe’s biggest budget carrier, Ryanair, is negotiating 3,000 job cuts, mainly pilots and cabin crew, and expects to carry this year half the number of passengers compared to initial expectations. Emirates is reportedly weighing 30,000 job cuts, according to Bloomberg News.
Airlines of all sizes now have to figure out how social distancing and face-coverings on flights would work apart from the gloomy outlooks for this year.
Aircraft Manufacturers Also Suffer
Significantly reduced passenger numbers and a highly uncertain recovery timeline impacts airlines’ fleet rotation, retirement, and new buys, affecting manufacturers and suppliers such as Boeing, Airbus, and GE Aviation, which are also cutting jobs.
Boeing has taken action to lower employee numbers by around 10-15 percent through a combination of voluntary layoffs (VLO), natural turnover, and involuntary layoffs as necessary. This means that Boeing will cut 15,000-16,000 jobs, as “the pandemic is also delivering a body blow to our business,” Boeing President and CEO Dave Calhoun said in a letter to employees at the end of April.
Recovery To Take Years, Threatening Jet Fuel Demand
Unlike in road transportation, where recovery is gaining momentum with eased lockdowns and more U.S. states and major economies opening up, airline transportation will suffer for years to come, executives and analysts say. As a consequence, jet fuel demand—the fuel worst hit by the slump—will recover at the slowest rate.
“Given the combined effects of the pandemic and associated financial impact on the global economy, we believe that it could be up to three years before we see a sustainable recovery,” Delta’s Bastian said on the earnings call.
While global oil demand is set to rebound with a V-shaped recovery, demand for jet fuel will continue to languish for at least another two years, cut by significantly reduced business travel, Goldman Sachs says.
Gasoline demand in the U.S. stood at 7.398 million bpd for the week to May 8, and although this was still below the 9.148-million bpd demand for the same week last year, the number was a clear improvement from the 5.86-million-bpd demand just two weeks prior, EIA data shows.
Global jet fuel demand, on the other hand, will drop by 33.6 percent this year, or by at least 2.4 million bpd from last year’s demand of 7.2 million bpd, according to Rystad Energy. Next year, jet fuel demand will not have returned to the pre-crisis levels and is expected to average 6.9 million bpd.
According to Wood Mackenzie, jet fuel demand is not expected to regain the 2019 level until 2022 at the earliest.
Travel restrictions and lockdowns impact near-term projections for the airline industry's future, but a lasting change in lifestyles and travel behavior could upend the air travel business and its demand for fuel forever.
By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com
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