Europeans may be flocking to Mediterranean beaches for getaways delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, but — at least at Swiss International Air Lines — the rise in leisure bookings belies a broader travel recovery.
“We regretfully still see no signs of any broader structural recovery of the air transport sector,” said Tamur Goudarzi Pour, commercial chief at the Zurich-based carrier, in Swiss’ summer schedule unveiled on Tuesday. All in, the airline will fly 50-55 percent of its 2019 capacity during the peak summer months of July and August, a marked increase from less than 30 percent in May but still far below some its network peers in Australia, China and the U.S.
The issue facing Swiss is that of every airline without a large domestic market. The carrier has negligible domestic flying — less than one percent of its system capacity in 2019 — and overwhelmingly relied on business travel before the crisis. Together, this leaves Swiss at a significant disadvantage when it comes to a recovery that favors domestic leisure and visiting friends and relatives (VFR) travel.
Swiss is far from alone. The International Air Transport Association expects passenger traffic in Western Europe to recover slower than in other regions with large domestic markets, chief economist Brian Pearce said during a briefing on May 26. The lagging recovery, which is forecast to last into 2023, is in large part due to the region’s reliance on international travel — both within the EU bloc and from long-haul points.
“You’re likely to see a more cautious industry, as we come through this crisis and go into the recovery mode,” said IATA Director General Willie Walsh.
Cautious is an accurate description of Swiss’ approach to the recovery. In May, the carrier unveiled significant fleet and staff cuts that will see it emerge from the pandemic smaller than it was before. The airline plans to operate fewer frequencies on European routes and cut some long-haul destinations from its map.
This is not to say Swiss plans to sit out what European leisure and VFR recovery occurs this summer. Part of its summer capacity ramp-up includes six new routes: Geneva to Funchal and Ponta Delgada in Portugal, Santorini in Greece, and Split in Croatia; and Zurich to Billund, Denmark, and Tallinn, Estonia. Billund and Tallinn are new destinations for Swiss.
The Lufthansa Group, which owns Swiss and four other carriers, could fly as much as 70 percent of pre-crisis capacity during the peak summer, executives said at the end of April. However, how much the group’s carriers fly will depend on the pace of countries reopening to visitors — something many both inside and outside the industry agree is progressing slower than hoped.
Swiss has seen a rise in summer bookings to destinations along the Mediterranean as well as to the United Arab Emirates and U.S., said Pour. However, volumes remain “well below” pre-crisis levels.
All of the airlines new routes will be flown with Airbus A220 jets, Cirium schedules show. The aircraft has proven popular with airlines during the crisis for its low operating costs coupled with a smaller seating capacity than short-haul mainstay Airbus A320 family jets.
Swiss took delivery of its 30th A220 at the end of May.