Empty skies: how COVID-19 changed European air traffic

Repatriation flights and cargo operations dominated European skies in spring 2020. But was there an actual increase of these operations, or did they just become more visible while regularly scheduled passenger flights were out of the picture? Eurocontrol forecasting manager Claire Leleu answered the question speaking at AIR Convention Digital Week on June 15, 2020. 

From March to May 2020, cargo operations remained stable, while passenger flights entered a standstill. In fact, as some airlines adjusted their passenger aircraft to carry goods (adding ~16% additional freight capacity), cargo flights market share in Europe grew to account for up to 30% in some days, according to Leleu, who also cautioned that the number was a conservative estimate, as airlines were not obliged to reveal the purpose of the flight. In comparison, the cargo segment in Europe constituted around 3% of all traffic before the COVID-19. 

An even greater change was seen among repatriation flights. Previously only seen occasionally and under special circumstances (take, for instance, the massive repatriation effort following Thomas Cook collapse), these operations became somewhat a part of normal air traffic in Europe since mid-March 2020. 

Around 85,000 citizens were repatriated during the period, based on EU Civil Protection Mechanism data. Conservative estimates point that in April 2020, airlines were operating approximately 40 such flights per day. “Depending on the week, these flights were mainly operated by network and low-cost carriers. But quite often operated by business aviation or charter operators as well,” Leleu observed. 

To understand how pandemics affected European skies in the past months, take a look at the brief video by Eurocontrol communications team: 

AIR Convention Digital Week hosts 30+ global aviation executives discussing how aviation is reshaped by the COVID-19 virus effects and the paths to recovery. Watch the event on aerotime.aero, every day at 2 CET on June 15th – June 19th, 2020.

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