Easter should be one of the busiest times of the year for European airlines, traditionally marking the start of the long, profitable summer season when carriers make the vast majority of their money. But this weekend the skies will be quiet.
A wave of coronavirus infections and border closures across Europe has left airlines struggling to plan summer flight schedules with little idea of where and when people will be able to fly.
Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, is expected to back a “traffic light” system that will grade countries depending on vaccinations, infection rates and the prevalence of Covid-19 variants when he sets out plans on Monday for reopening borders.
Carriers have already reported a sharp rise in bookings since the UK first announced a road map for reopening its borders from mid-May at the earliest.
Although there is little clarity about how travel restrictions will evolve this summer, passengers are targeting destinations that have already indicated they will open, according to a Financial Times analysis of data from Skyscanner, the online booking platform.
The figures show Greece and Turkey, which both rely heavily on tourism, are set to be among the biggest beneficiaries, accounting for a higher proportion of bookings from the UK than at this point in 2019, the last normal summer season. The share of bookings for Greece rose 4 percentage points to 8.6 per cent, the biggest rise among the 160 countries in the analysis.
Low-cost carrier Jet2 said bookings to Cyprus rose sharply in March after the country said vaccinated Britons would be welcome this summer. It also reported a rise in bookings to Greece after it said it would welcome visitors who have been vaccinated, have antibodies or have tested negative for coronavirus.
Jet2 said it will lay on thousands of extra seats from June into the autumn to cope with increased demand.
“The number of customers booking flights and package holidays with us . . . tells us that many people want nothing more than to get away this summer,” said Steve Heapy, Jet2 chief executive.
British Airways is even considering flying some of its biggest planes to Greece to cope with demand, although no decision has yet been taken on this, according to a person familiar with the matter.
However, holidaymakers are treating some traditional summer hotspots more cautiously. France, Italy and Portugal’s share of bookings have fallen slightly compared with levels in 2019.
This is supported by figures from aviation consultancy OAG which show that scheduled airline capacity by seats this summer, although subject to revision, is expected to reach three-fifths of its 2019 peak in Italy and just half the 2019 summer levels in France.
The data also show that airlines have been boosted by a steady stream of passengers visiting friends and relatives around the world, leading to strong bookings to parts of south Asia, including Pakistan. Its capital Islamabad was the most popular destination by share of summer 2021 bookings for UK travellers, surpassing New York, Alicante and Malaga in Spain.
In response, airlines including Virgin Atlantic and British Airways, have introduced new services to cities such as Islamabad and have reported strong interest even during the winter months when restrictions were in place on most travel to and from the UK.
Additional reporting by Patrick Mathurin and Chris Campbell in London and Ian Mount in Madrid