The industry had some rare good news recently, with a market assessment from easyJet that was more upbeat than expected.
The airline’s chief executive Johan Lundgren said “higher than expected levels of demand” since the carrier resumed flights on 15 June had left him “really encouraged”.
Having resumed flying with just 10 of 343 aircraft, Lundgren increased capacity to 147 “lines of flying” in July. Lines of flying are the number of flights one aircraft will do in a day – in easyJet’s case, usually three return flights. This figure is now expected to rise to 210 lines – about 70 aircraft – in August.
The carrier said it now expected to fly 40% of capacity in July, August and September, peaking in the current month, compared to a previous forecast of 30%. This sounds highly encouraging, but that still leaves 60% of capacity absent throughout August from a carrier that now arguably dominates short-haul leisure flying – its fleet compares with Jet2.com’s 90 aircraft and Tui’s 58.
It’s not a very reassuring indicator and the easyJet boss’s optimism may seem misplaced when the results of a YouGov poll are analysed. The survey of 2,500 adults, carried out on 29 July, found just 9% planned on holidaying abroad this year, while the overwhelming majority, 49%, said they didn’t intend taking a break.
Another 9% said they would holiday in the UK, where traditionally, every summer, the weather has people leaving it for sunnier climes in their millions. Uniquely this August, the UK weather will play a much bigger part in determining late booking patterns and it hasn’t been on the outbound travel industry’s side so far. Last weekend’s hot spell looks set to be followed by more fine weather in the south at least, which is not good for selling foreign holidays.
Meanwhile, the market is restricted to those who are sure they will have a job when they return from holiday – and that part of the population is growing smaller by the day with the end of the furlough scheme looming in the autumn.
For those consumers confident about their ability to spend, booking patterns are being determined by where travellers can actually fly. The FCO’s advice against all travel to mainland Spain on 26 July and the Balearics and Canaries two days later was the spanner in the works at precisely the wrong time.
Data from Cirium shows UK flights to the top five Spanish airports - Malaga, Alicante, Barcelona, Madrid and Tenerife South fell from 220 the day before the ban to 160 on 27 July. Of these 160, 50 were from Ryanair, 40 from easyJet and another 40 from Jet2.com, which has since ceased flying to Spain. British Airways accounted for fewer than 20 and Vueling a handful of services.
Turning off Spain has had a drastic impact, with John and Irene Hays faced with “no choice” but to propose nearly 900 redundancies. Tellingly, of the proposed 878 job losses announced last week, 534 were in the foreign exchange division, presumably an area the Hays were referring to when they said there was “no work for some sections of the business” – this year, people are not buying foreign currency in anticipation of going abroad.
For the smaller independent, the last few weeks have been a fresh headache.
“We had some green shoots; sales had grown for four-six weeks, then we had that announcement (the FCO’s advice on Spain) on the Saturday night,” said Idle Travel’s Tony Mann, who added he was left “frustrated and angry” at the lack of consultation from government.
He said closing Spain had prompted a rash of re-bookings in the days after. “The majority that had booked with us on lates switched to Turkey and Greece, but we also saw a dip in new bookings.”
The pricing situation
Mann said there was now a definite price message from operators rarely seen in August in order to overcome qualms about last minute cancellations and quarantine concerns.
“The value is amazing; we only have this in peak summer in Europe in years when it’s difficult to sell. There are people who will take that gamble because of the value. Unfortunately as an industry, that’s what we’ve had to do.”
The unusual and seemingly perverse situation that capacity is more limited but awash with discounting is born out by a quick look at pricing. A glance at Tui’s inventory shows claimed discounts of up to 56% in Greece. Offers to Turkey, which has more of the bigger family properties traditionally demanded in August, are fewer, but still with some showing 40%-plus discounts.
“Fast forward to summer 2021 and we will clearly see the value of this summer,” added Mann.
Meanwhile, there are the next three months to get through and while there has been some switching of destinations it’s not the bonanza specialists might hope.
Harry Kyrillou, commercial and aviation director of Greece and Cyprus specialist Planet Holidays said: “There have been bookings switched from Spain to Greece and carriers like Jet2, easyJet and Tui all moving capacity from Spain to Greece has made it easier for tour operators and agents to transfer bookings. Greece has picked up and we can see bookings coming in for September and October.”
However, he added: “This summer, whatever we do is a bonus because the majority have already switched to next year.”
Kyrillou’s other main destination, Cyprus, is on sale, but “very, very difficult” due to the new Covid-testing requirements for UK travellers. Despite this, Jet2.com announced this week almost 85,000 summer 2020 seats to the island, re-launching it after a six-month absence. This might be a canny move, or it may be a sign operators are facing increasingly fewer options.
Jet2’s re-entry to Cyprus will be bitter-sweet for Kyrillou, who said consolidation and cancellation of flights to the island had played havoc with bookings made well in advance. He told how a Jet2.com flight cancellation had left Planet no choice but to refund a lucrative wedding booking.