How much of a game-changer will Covid-19 be?

Let me take you back more than a decade, to the mid-2000s if memory serves me correctly. The world was facing a threat from the H5N1 strain of avian flu. Although the disease did not materialize as a global pandemic, not having the high level of human-to-human transmission that was initially feared, avian flu has not gone away. Its appearance, however, spurred many governments and organizations to plan for a world under lockdown. Did we learn any lessons? It seems not.

I was working in the Philippines at the time, as Director for Program Planning and Communications at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) based in Los Baños, about 65 km south of Manila. One of my briefs was risk management, and so leading the institute’s response to the H5N1 threat fell to me. I formed a task force that proposed a series of measures to protect staff and their families, and developed health and safety guidelines (with input from local health officials in Los Baños) for self isolation or quarantine, or if access to food and services became limited. These included for example recommendations as simple as keeping an appropriate amount of cash in the home should ATMs cease to function.

The institute also acquired a significant stock of the antiviral medication oseltamivir (sold as Tamiflu), and offered seasonal flu vaccinations to all staff and their closest family members (at a cost in excess of US$200,000). Should anyone vaccinated show flu symptoms then they might well be a candidate for avian flu. Anyway we had contingency plans for a significant period of disruption to everyday life.

How naïve we were!

I have been surprised—shocked even—how quickly life has changed for everyone under the Covid-19 pandemic. The shutdown of economic activity and everyday life has been far more rapid and extensive than anything IRRI’s avian flu task force envisaged.

The question surely on everyone’s lips is when will society return to normal. And perhaps more importantly, what will that ‘new normal’ (a term I dislike) look like?

There’s been much in the press and social media about not wanting to return to how things were. This pandemic has given society an opportunity—if we choose to take it—to reassess our values, and decide which aspects should return to pre-Covid levels, or even at all. And how we should work, for example, with working from home probably here to stay for some businesses (as Twitter has recently announced).

Economic activity has been hit so hard in such a short time that pundits are forecasting an economic downturn far more severe than the Great Depression between 1929 and 1933. The Bank of England has even warned that this could be the worst economic decline for 300 years. That’s some decline!


One of the industries hardest hit is aviation. I don’t think we have ever seen images like this one.

When was the last time you looked up into the sky and saw a contrail? Over the past couple of days I’ve seen more, but in general, they are almost a novelty right now. Nevertheless, airlines are clearly itching to take to the skies once again. But will they and how many?

I think it’s pretty certain that some airlines will not return to their pre-Covid-19 configuration, and some may not return at all or may be absorbed through mergers or acquisitions into airlines that better weather the Covid-19 storm. Some airlines were already on the ropes before the pandemic.

Will the public have the same pre-Covid-19 appetite for air travel, since the virus is not going away soon, and given the social distancing and on-arrival quarantine measures that are being contemplated? This pandemic is already catalyzing a rethink about our love affair with aviation and seeing this as an opportunity to redress the balance in terms of global warming. Only time will tell if we change our aviation habits.


Last night, thinking about how Covid-19 was affecting everybody’s lives, I began wondering when Steph and I might be able to travel again to the USA to visit our elder daughter Hannah and her family (husband Michael, and grandchildren Callum and Zoë) in Minnesota. We stepped off our last flight in October 2019, from Minneapolis-St Paul (MSP) to Birmingham, UK (BHX) via Amsterdam (AMS) on Delta Airlines and KLM.

When the time finally comes to travel again, which airline might fly us to Minnesota? Airlines (and their lovely insignia, branding – see below) that do not survive the Covid-19 lockdown will be consigned to the annals of aviation history. As so many have, I realised, over the 54 years since I took my first flight in the summer of 1966 (from Glasgow to Benbecula, a small island in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland). How many unnecessary air miles have I travelled over these past five and half decades? Too many to count, I guess.

Covid-19 will become the final nail in the coffin for some airlines. Several are already looking to reconfigure their fleets, decommissioning large and inefficient aircraft, in the hope that will keep them solvent and able to return to full operations when permitted. Even before the lockdown most airlines had already disposed of their Boeing 747 aircraft. It had a great run nevertheless since it first took to the air on 9 February 1969, and entering into service with its launch airline, Pan Am, on 22 January 1970 from New York to London. I wonder how many of Emirates’ huge fleet of superjumbo A380 aircraft will fare in a post-Covid world?

Pan Am was an airline I knew well. When I was working in Central America during the second half of the 1970s I used to fly the airline frequently (on its Boeing 707 aircraft) through its hub in Guatemala City. Sadly, Pan Am is no more, collapsing in December 1991. There again, quite a number of the airlines I have travelled with are also no more. These airline insignia images were sourced through Wikipedia.

Here’s a list, with an asterisk indicating which are no longer operating (or at least no longer operating under that particular brand), and the date on which they ceased operations.

North America
Aeroméxico
American
Braniff International Airways* 1982
Canadian Pacific Air Lines* 1987
Delta Air Lines
Eastern Air Lines* 1991
Mexicana de Aviación* 2010
National Airlines* 1980
Northwest Airlines* 2010
Pan American* 1991
Southwest Airlines
Trans World Airlines (TWA)* 2001
United Airlines

Central and South America
AeroPerú* 1999
Air Jamaica* 2015
Avianca
Aviateca* 1989
British West Indies Airways* 2006
Copa Airlines
Cruzeiro* 1993
Faucett Perú* 1997
LACSA* 2013
LAN Airlines* 2012
LIAT
SAHSA* 1994
TACA* 2013
Varig* 2006

Africa and Middle East
Air Ivoire* 2011
Air Madagascar
Emirates
Ethiopian Airways
Kenya Airways
LAM Mozambique Airlines
South African Airways
Turkish Airlines

Asia and Oceania
Air China
Cathay Pacific
China Eastern Airlines
China Southern Airlines
Dragonair 2006
Garuda Indonesia
Korean Air
Lao Airlines
Malaysia Airlines
Philippine Airlines
Qantas
Silk Airlines
Singapore Airlines
Thai Airways
Vietnam Airlines

Europe
Air France
Alitalia
Austrian Airlines
BOAC* 1974
British Airways
British Caledonian* 1988
British European Airways* 1974
Brussels Airlines
easyJet
Flybe* 2020
Iberia
KLM
Laker Airways* 1982
LOT Polish Airlines
Lufthansa
Paramount Airways* 1989
Sabena* 2001
Swissair* 2002
TAP Air Portugal

These are the airlines I remember.

They have fared less well in North and Central America, where mergers have brought different airlines together. A good example is the dominant role today in Central America of Avianca (from Colombia) and its Central American subsidiaries, the successors to the national airlines of Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

I’m sure the effects of Covid-19 will see further consolidation in the North American market. But until intercontinental travel is fully restored, airlines like Emirates that have built their business model on hub distribution to multiple destinations using large aircraft (like the A380 and the Boeing 777) are likely to come out of lockdown (recession even) more slowly than smaller and perhaps more nimble airlines that can focus on their domestic markets.