Measures taken by airlines and airports to reduce the likelihood of transmission of COVID-19 and to reassure the travelling public about the safety of air travel could in themselves reduce air travel even further. Analysis by OAG shows that if the minimum time allowed for connecting to and from international flights was to be extended to 2 hours, international connectivity could be reduced by almost 20%.
While no-one knows what will happen to Minimum Connect Times, or MCT’s, which are essential tool used to construct viable connecting flight bookings for passengers, it is almost certain that the effective cleaning of aircraft between operations and new hygiene requirements for passengers would require more time for the aircraft on the ground. Gone will be the 20-minute turnarounds which the low-cost carriers heralded as one of the key means of keeping costs low and rising aircraft utilisation.
OAG looked at five of the world’s largest hub airports, and assumed an MCT of 120 minutes would be applied to all possible connections between domestic and international flights and between international and international flights. This is up from a default of 45 minutes on journey’s connecting between domestic and international flights and 90 minutes between two international flights. With these longer MCTs the number of possible connections within a 6-hour window reduces by 18.1% at these airports.
If this loss of connectivity were translated into an actual loss of connecting passengers and scaled up to the Top 50 airports in the world this in itself would reduce the number of international connecting passengers by over 70 million.
There are many additional impacts that arise from the need to extend MCTs, not least of which will be where to allow passengers to wait if they need to spend more time in the connecting airport, especially given requirements around social distancing and that local departing passengers may be asked to arrive earlier for their flights too.
The impact on aircraft utilisation could be massive too. Airlines that could reliably fit 5 aircraft rotations into a normal day might have to settle for 4, with a commensurate 20% loss of capacity, unless operating hours can be extended, and airport curfews lifted.
For hub airport operations based on a wave of incoming flights meeting a subsequent wave of departing flights, the spacing of those waves would likely be moved further apart, with knock-on schedule changes required at both hub and spoke airports.
And if the number of aircraft which can be handled in a normal day is reduced but demand for slots remains high, what impact will that have on slot values at congested airports?
These are many other aspects of adapting to the new normal have yet to be worked out but this analysis does start to give a sense of the scale of the problems ahead.