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Another turbulent year for aviation

The pandemic is likely to continue to impact aviation well into 2022

The rare sight of a plane in the sky was most likely one transporting cargo.

The weeks and months that followed the tragic events in New York on 9/11 had much less of an impact on aviation than the effect of the global pandemic.

It was the worst year in the industry’s history.

Impact of pandemic on aviation continued in 2021

Covid lockdowns and travel restrictions were introduced before the new year began.

However, 2021 began with hope on the horizon in the form of the vaccine rollout.

Ryanair, which normally carries the most passengers in Europe, lambasted “brutal lockdowns” and called on the government to accelerate vaccinations.

In January, it said it expected to lose 95% of its traffic in February and March, with few if any flights operating from Ireland and the UK.

The government had banned incoming travel from Britain until the end of the first week of January and required all international arrivals to provide a negative Covid-19 test from within the previous 72 hours to enter the country.

Ryanair began the year by cutting its full-year traffic forecast by a further 5m passengers to between 26m and 30m.

Aer Lingus had axed 600 jobs by early 2021 as it grappled with the impact of the pandemic.

The cuts represented more than a tenth of the 5,000 people the airline employed at the end of June 2020.

The airline, owned by IAG, plunged to a €563m loss in 2020. Its passenger revenue slumped 81.4% to €382, while cargo revenue jumped to €88m in 2020 from €34m.

A poor start to the year, but IAG said it remained committed to continuing development of Dublin Airport as a hub for transatlantic travel after the pandemic.

Aer Lingus also delivered the first Moderna Covid-19 vaccine to Ireland in January. “We are proud to be a part of the supply chain in our nation’s continued efforts to combat the virus,” the airline tweeted.

The small number of airline passengers were reflected in the numbers travelling through Irish airports. Just over 213,000 passengers passed through Dublin Airport in January, which was a 90% decline compared to the same month last year.

Passenger volumes to and from continental Europe fell by 86%. UK traffic declined by 96%, and passenger volumes to and from North America dropped by 88%.

Mandatory Hotel Quarantine

The government introduced a 14-day mandatory hotel quarantine requirement that took effect from March 26, for travelers from a range of countries.

In its early days, it was beset by problems, with people absconding, complaints about conditions and the sick and bereaved appealing for leniency.

Exemptions for the fully vaccinated and those travelling for medical reasons followed.

Ryanair threatened to cancel flights to some of its most popular European destinations over the policy.

The airline called on Taoiseach Micheál Martin “to scrap Ireland’s defective hotel quarantine for certain EU countries, and to deliver a roadmap for the re-opening of EU air travel in time for summer holidays.”

It called the public health policy “an absurd measure when Ireland has a 500km open land border with the UK.”

The director general of the International Air Transport Association, Willie Walsh, was also critical of the regime which he described as “particularly repressive”.

“Freedom of movement is a fundamental principal of the EU. That is what has upset me most,” Mr Walsh, a former CEO of IAG, said at the time.

Over 10,000 people were required to enter mandatory hotel quarantine and at its height, 60 countries were on the list including France, Germany and the US.

The decision to end the system was made on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan, and the last 50 people were released with immediate effect on September 25.

Legislation which allows for the renewal of mandatory hotel quarantine was signed into law in early December amid Omicron concerns.

The law allows for travelers who arrive in Ireland from specific named countries to have to stay in a hotel for 14 days, based on orders from the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, who has the power to designate such countries.

International travel resumed

The EU Digital Covid Certificate, which allowed for travel across the EU, was officially implemented on July 1, but was not introduced in Ireland until July 19.

It meant there were no requirement to quarantine if you had proof of being fully vaccinated, had recovered from Covid-19 or had a negative PCR test 72 hours prior to arrival

The milestone was welcomed as a “day of hope” and “the first step in the recovery of Ireland’s aviation and travel sectors” by the Irish Aviation Authority.

Around 151,000 passengers passed through Dublin Airport in the week that followed, up from around 100,000 the previous week.

However, despite the increase the numbers were still down around 80% on the same week in 2019, underlining the rebuilding challenges that the sector faced.

Dublin and Cork airport operator, daa, had recorded a loss of over 43 million passengers during the pandemic up to that point.

The company, which has reduced its workforce by over 1,000, said it was ready to welcome back passengers as restrictions eased.

Stobart Air

Stobart Air collapsed in June after a planned sale of the company by its parent Esken to Isle of Man firm Ettyl fell through.

The airline operated regional routes for Aer Lingus under a franchise agreement.

Aer Lingus stepped in to provide services for some of its passengers who had been left stranded, while BA CityFlyer operated two.

In August, Aer Lingus entered into a 10-year franchise agreement with Emerald Airlines to operate its regional flights from January 2023.

In December, the airlines announced that the flights would start 10 months ahead of schedule on March 17, 2022.

Emerald Airlines plans to fly over 340 flights per week across 11 routes from March.

It said that high-frequency routes, including Dublin-Edinburgh and Dublin-Glasgow, will be served up to four times a day.

Sustainable Aviation Fuels

In April, Ryanair announced a €1.5m donation to Trinity College Dublin to launch a sustainable aviation research centre.

The airline said it planned to power 12.5% of its flights with sustainable aviation fuels by 2030.

The commitment came just days after the owner of rival Aer Lingus and British Airways committed to using the fuels to power 10% of its flights.

Ryanair said its order of 210 Boeing 737 MAX jets, which use around 16% less fuel than the current generation of 737s, will cement Ryanair’s leadership in the area.

Sustainable aviation fuel was a hot topic on the sidelines of COP26 in Glasgow.

A spokeswoman for the World Economic Forum told the climate change event that over 60% of organisations across the globe, including major airlines, major fuel producers, alternative fuel producers have committed to meeting the 10% SAF target by 2030.

It was acknowledged that there are issues that hinder the adoption of SAF by the industry. The fuels are currently only produced in small quantities and remain very expensive. They can be anything from 3 to 10 times the amount of conventional jet fuel, which prohibits airlines in particular from procuring them.

Lifting of US travel bans

In September, the United States announced that it would lift Covid-19 travel bans on air passengers in November if they were fully vaccinated.

The restrictions were first imposed on travelers from China in January 2020 by former US President Donald Trump and then extended to other countries in the following months, without any clear metrics for how and when to lift them.

Every seat on Aer Lingus flights to the US was sold out on Monday, November 8, when the restriction was lifted.

Family and friends on both sides of the Atlantic were able to reunite again, and there were emotional scenes at the airports.

It was hoped that it would bring a welcome boost to airlines, including Aer Lingus, that are highly dependent on transatlantic traffic.

The airline’s chief operating officer, Peter O’Neill said it was hoped that the airline’s capacity will be back up at 80% of 2019 levels by March 2022 and up to 90% by the summer period.

Cork Airport

Cork Airport reopened on Monday, November 22, after the reconstruction of the runway closed it for 10 weeks.

The reconstruction was part of a €40 million investment programme currently under way at the airport.

The runway was re-built in two-and-a-half months, while funding for the project was only allocated 12 months earlier.

Cork Airport said it was the fastest large-scale construction project undertaken in the State in recent years and the single biggest government investment in the airport.

Managing Director Niall MacCarthy defended the decision to close the airport for 10 weeks while the aviation industry was attempting to recover.

“The massive runway reconstruction project was completed on schedule and within budget in a 10-week construction period,” he said.

“The airport made a brave decision to close completely to undertake the reconstruction works and be delivered in a quicker time, in a safer environment and with less long-term impacts on airlines and passengers than an alternative of night-time closures next year over a 10-month period next year.”

Over 430 people were employed during the 10-week reconstruction phase.

Funding Boost

In mid-December, the Government announced almost €108 million in direct Exchequer supports to Irish airports.

The funding is being administered under the Regional Airports Programme 2021-2025, the Covid-19 Regional State Airports Programme 2021, as well as the Covid-19 Supplementary Supports Scheme for Irish Airports recently approved by the European Commission.

Dublin Airport will receive almost €80m, while Cork will receive nearly €14m and Shannon just over €10m.

Mary Considine, CEO of Shannon Group which runs the airport welcomed the funding announcement. “The aviation sector including airports have been at the epicentre of the devastation caused as a result of the pandemic.

“As we focus on rebuilding connectivity, we warmly welcome the Government support announced by Minister Naughton through the inclusion of Shannon Airport in the Covid-19 Regional State Airports Programme 2021, and we are grateful of confirmation of final approval of the additional funding for the state airports under the Covid-19 Supplementary Supports Scheme for Irish Airports recently approved by the European Commission,” she added.

Omicron

The omicron variant once again dashed the travel sector’s hopes for recovery as we neared the end of 2021.

A fresh wave of restrictions lead passengers to cancel or hold off on booking trips.

Ryanair chief executive, Michael O’Leary said the airline expected to fly 10% fewer passengers in December as a result.

He said he also expected the first few months of 2022 to be weak if there is continued uncertainty over restrictions, or if new measures are imposed.

In an interview with The Telegraph newspaper in the UK, Mr O’Leary said he thinks only vaccinated passengers should be allowed to fly.

He said governments should “make life difficult” for people who refuse to take the vaccine without good reason.

“If you’re not vaccinated, you shouldn’t be allowed in the hospital, you shouldn’t be allowed to fly, you shouldn’t be allowed on the London Underground, and you shouldn’t be allowed in the local supermarket or your pharmacy either,” he said.

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