European carriers suffered a 73.7% traffic decline in 2020 versus 2019.

The reliance on international traffic has seen the decline continue in 2021. March, for example, saw an 88.3% decline in traffic compared with March 2019 and a load factor below 50%. Combined, Europe’s airlines lost €27 billion in 2020.

“Pre-COVID, Europe had efficient connections,” says Rafael Schvartzman, IATA’s Regional Vice President for Europe. “The European Union (EU) space was a single market, similar to the US domestic market. That intra-EU connectivity has gone. What we have now is as fragmentation.”

Anything that can speed the recovery of European carriers and improve their future efficiency has to be welcomed. IATA Travel Pass contains all the passenger details necessary for safe, efficient travel. It will inform passengers on what tests, vaccines, and other measures they require prior to travel, details on where they can get tested, and, most importantly, the ability to share their tests and vaccination results in a verifiable manner that also protects privacy.

The aim is to give airlines and governments accurate information on passengers’ COVID-19 health status and therefore the confidence that they can restart operations and re-open borders. And most importantly from a European perspective, it can be integrated with the EU COVID-19 Certificate.

The interoperable, secure, and GDPR-compliant health certificate represent an essential tool to facilitate the free movement of people within the EU and reopen travel in a safe and responsible way. The EU has also called for free and accessible testing and full equality so that no additional measures, such as quarantine or further testing, should be imposed on travelers presenting a valid EU COVID-19 Certificate.

“The certificate will help restore confidence,” says Schvartzman. “It will bring something that has been missing; a coordinated and harmonized set of rules to re-establish connectivity. And thanks to the integration with IATA Travel Pass that harmonization and connectivity can spread to the rest of world.”

Indeed, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission (EC), has said that the EU will grant unrestricted access to vaccinated travelers from the United States.

IATA’s Director General, Willie Walsh called it “a step in the right direction.” He added: “It gives hope to people for so many reasons—to travel, to reunite with loved ones, to develop business opportunities or to get back to work.”

Recently, France and Spain have relaxed COVID-19 border measures for vaccinated passengers and adopted the broader use of affordable antigen testing although harmonized measures across Europe are still a long way off.

“Many European states have yet to significantly relax borders at all,” said Walsh. “This fragmentation should be replaced with a unified approach that is consistent with the recommendations of the EU to which they belong. People, businesses and economies would all benefit from greater alignment across Europe in relaxing measures and restoring the freedom to travel.”


Build back better

It is not enough to simply recover, however. The aim for the industry is to build back better. If that is to be the case, the EC still has plenty of work to do.

Most obviously, it must kickstart the infamously languorous Single European Sky. The June 2021 Transport Council—attended by Transport Ministers—must adopt more ambitious targets.

“State inaction has meant that SES targets have not been met,” explains Walsh. “New legislation, as proposed by the Commission, is the only way to force the reform and improvements that are desperately needed. But the intransigence and selfishness of key EU states and their air navigation service providers (ANSPs) threatens to collapse the latest Commission effort.”

The SES is vital for a safe, sustainable, and efficient European air transport industry. Among its benefits are:

  • an improvement in safety performance by a factor of ten
  • greater capacity and fewer delays, giving a €245 billion boost to Europe’s GDP and a million extra jobs annually from 2035
  • A 10% cut in EU aviation emissions, supporting the European Green Deal.

“Europe talks a good game about the importance of sustainability and competitiveness,” says Walsh. “It’s time to put action behind those words with the SES. If the combined weight of the climate crisis and the COVID-19 crisis are not sufficiently compelling drivers for SES, it’s hard to know what could be.”

IATA supports giving regulators the power to enforce robust performance targets. It also endorses the strengthening of the pan-European Network Manager to improve efficiency, which will help cut delays and emissions.

Walsh believes a failure of the Commission’s proposal would be a lost opportunity for change when it is vitally needed. “And the environment and the European economy will pay a high price for that, along with travelers and airlines,” he argues.


Airport charges

Concerns over the efficiency of airspace are mirrored on the ground as airports look to recoup their financial losses by increasing airline charges, irrespective of the damage this could cause to their aviation partners and the travel and tourism industries more generally.

Heathrow Airport will be allowed to extract higher passenger charges to cover pandemic losses (2020-2021) from 2022, even though its landing charges are already the highest in the world.

Spanish airport operator AENA, meanwhile, wants to increase user charges at its 46 airports 5.5% over five years. In fact, analysis shows that AENA could reduce its charges 4%.

Schvartzman says higher costs will delay a tourism rebound and keep jobs at risk. The number of destinations with direct links to Spain fell from 1,800 (2019) to 234 (2020) during the pandemic and more than 1.1 million Spanish jobs have been lost or put at risk and over €60 billion of GDP has been lost. The contribution of travel and tourism to Spain’s economy fell from 12% to 4%.

“AENA should be thinking about the longer term and focusing on cost-efficient airport infrastructure,” Schvartzman suggests.



The Spanish Government needs a clear roadmap if aviation is to boost the country’s overall economic recovery. Some 82% of tourists arrive by air and Spain is a global leader in the international conference and trade fair sector.

“Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and all policy-makers in Spain must agree a vision for how international travel can and will be restarted as the pandemic ends,” says Schvartzman.

In fact, all national governments also need to play their part in a fast, efficient recovery for European aviation. Most have given airlines short-term funding, either in return for equity or in the form of a loan. Some attached “green” terms, which may play out well with older aircraft retired. In theory, airline fleets will improve, benefiting the environment and the airline bottom line.

“The industry needs to stay aware of taxation levels, especially green taxes that don’t serve the environment or help the industry build back better,” says Schvartzman. “And governments must also support the urgent deployment of sustainable aviation fuels.”

Slot regulation is another vital area going forward.

“It is difficult to know what will happen in the years ahead,” concludes Schvartzman. “After all, you could never have predicted what has happened so far. But is important not to repeat mistakes. The fragmentation of Europe was the worst. Regional connectivity must be maintained through a data-driven approach that would also spark global connectivity.”

Schvartzman highlights key variables, including the speed of restart, the coordination of health certificates, and the overall financial situation, with airlines in considerable debt.

“Passenger confidence is vital, Schvartzman adds. “Clearly, the demand is there. But if the rules to allow travel are not in sync then airlines will be stopped from serving that demand. “And how long will demand be there if there is no supply? Aviation can grow strong again, but it needs a coordinated response from all stakeholders.”


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