Should airlines be promoting £5.99 flights during the Covid crisis?

The marketing emails from the airlines have become more frequent and appear more desperate, even as the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic worsens. Over the last two weeks Ryanair has badgered me with its “awesome autumn break sale” then its “latest mega sales event”, followed 48 hours later with a “last-minute weekend away price drop” then, seeing how I had not booked, another tease with “you know the drill, our latest sale must end midnight”.

What a contrast to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s official advice which, lest we forget, “advises British nationals against all but essential international travel”, bar a few exceptions.

There was a time when FCO advice against “all but essential” travel effectively put a country off the map for tourist jaunts. No longer.

Instead, Ryanair is promoting a range of mouth-wateringly cheap deals to places the government tells us we are mostly not supposed to be going to. I can pick an October flight from London to heaps of destinations across Europe for less than £10. Madrid for only £5.99. Barcelona, Bratislava, Faro, Pisa, the same. Prague, Milan and Budapest for £7.99. Hell, I can even fly the 2,300km to another continent, Africa, for only £5.99 if Marrakech is where I want to take a sunny break.

Amid Ryanair’s emails imploring me to holiday in Madrid and other European cities with the line “There’s still time for an autumn break”, the Spanish government declared a state of emergency to keep Madrid in partial lockdown. It has banned all non-essential movement in and out of the confined areas of the city and imposed restrictions on restaurants and bars.

Liverpool is already in its “very high alert”, with the local population officially told they “should try to avoid travelling outside their local area”. Meanwhile, Ryanair was this week selling flights from Liverpool airport to Prague, going out on Friday 16 October and returning the following Monday for £9.99 each way.

Prague is itself almost certainly heading into a second lockdown after a dramatic rise in Covid-19 infections that has transformed the Czech Republic into Europe’s fastest-growing outbreak. One wonders how the locals feel about budget airlines potentially adding to their woes by hauling in visitors from pandemic hotspots.

Sun rises over the medieval Charles Bridge in Prague.
You can get a cheap flight to Prague. Photograph: David W Černý/Reuters

The behaviour of the airlines has deeply concerned some public health experts. Dr Gabriel Scally, president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine in London, wrote last week: “Perhaps the biggest barrier to effective public health measures is the power and influence of the airline and international tourist industries.”

It isn’t, of course, only Ryanair that is operating flights through the pandemic. Another airline sent messages begging me to buy one of “thousands of seats from €13.99”, while easyJet was telling me in September: “Nothing beats exploring Europe’s cities, ticking off world-famous landmarks, tasting authentic local cuisine and experiencing colourful art and culture.”

Maybe nothing does – except when there’s a pandemic gripping the continent. When asked to justify its marketing of autumn breaks across Europe, Ryanair said in a statement: “Ryanair continues to operate flights to ensure essential connectivity for business and/or family purposes. Millions of jobs are dependent on Europe’s aviation industry and we must protect these as well while complying with WHO & EASA/ECDC guidelines as well as government restrictions.”

This week the airline said it would cut the number of its winter flights by a third but added that it was still hoping to keep its planes 70% full.

EasyJet said it was only operating flights where it sees “sufficient demand”. In a statement, it said: “Due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic and related changing restrictions across Europe we are continuing to monitor demand and adjust our flight schedule in line with it. We are only operating where we see sufficient demand from passengers travelling, who decide if they are able and willing to adhere to the advice and restrictions in place such as being able to quarantine or take a test on arrival or on return.

There are good reasons for operating flights for essential connectivity/business/family purposes. What’s more, holidaymakers are probably less of a vector for disease transmission than spreaders such as the meat processing plants, prone to infection all across Europe. But should airlines be feverishly promoting “last-minute” weekend getaways, accompanied by images of happy young couples enjoying their autumn break?

Despite all this, I and many other travellers will be sympathetic to Ryanair and the other airlines as they grapple with this pandemic. Almost no other business sector has been hit harder. As the airlines will ceaselessly tell you, their onboard air filters cut virus transmission risks dramatically – although they can’t protect you much from a passenger next to you who sneezes, or the enclosed airport terminals where you must necessarily spend hours with potentially thousands of other travellers.

The UK has already spent a small fortune helping to prop up the airlines. Ireland-based Ryanair is currently benefiting from £600m under the Bank of England’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility. EasyJet has also drawn £600m, while British Airways and Wizz have been supported to the tune of £300m each.

Would it have been that difficult to add a condition to these loan packages along the lines of “hey guys, could you at least discourage people from travelling unnecessarily while the pandemic is on?”

When the nightmare is over (the virus, Trump, Brexit negotiations … we could be waiting some time yet) and we can joyously spread our wings again, one thing is certain. The boom in air travel will be unparalleled – and the chances of a weekend flight to Prague, Barcelona or Madrid for a fiver a distant, never-to-be-repeated memory.

The Guardian

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