Holidaymakers are driving aviation’s recovery. But is it a false dawn?

Holidaymakers are packing their wheelies and heading for Europe’s beaches in their droves, determined to make up for two summers of Covid curbs. This week, Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary said the airline hoped to fly 165 million passengers in its current financial year, ahead of the 149 million it carried in the 12 months to March 2020 before the pandemic grounded air travel. The Irish giant has 15 per cent more seats available to travellers than it did in 2019/20.

On Thursday, its rival Easyjet said bookings for the last 10 weeks were “consistently above pre-Covid levels”, although, unlike Ryanair, the British carrier has fewer seats this year than it did before the virus struck. And earlier this month, Aer Lingus predicted that it could break even this year after 24 months of losses and said it aims to reach more than 90 per cent of pre-pandemic capacity.

Stephen Furlong, aviation analyst with Irish stockbrokers, Davy, says the evidence from airlines dismisses any notion that Covid would change air travel. “There is enormous pent-up demand,” he says. “In European short-haul, we’re at 90 per cent of 2019 capacity.”


Observers always believed domestic and short-haul travel would revive fastest as the pandemic receded, while long-haul’s recovery would lag. Enda Corneille, Gulf carrier Emirates’ Ireland country manager, says the opposite appears to be true. “We’re seeing demand right across the aircraft, business, first-class and economy,” he says. “At the moment long-haul demand is out the door.”

Emirates is filling up to 95 per cent of the seats on its aircraft out of Dublin. Corneille observes that the queues at its check-in desks are more like those for Malaga or other European sunspots. “It’s young couples, it’s families,” he says, adding that people are clearly treating themselves after two years of Covid.

Some are flying to Dubai, but many are connecting on to other destinations, including India and Pakistan, Asia generally, South Africa, and Australia and New Zealand, which have just re-opened after some of the world’s longest lockdowns.

Lynne Embleton, Aer Lingus chief executive, confirmed this month that its forward bookings for both long- and short-haul were strong. The Irish carrier’s transatlantic routes are important to its profitability and central to its growth plans. Its owner, International Airlines’ Group, expects all North Atlantic services to be close to full capacity from the end of June.

Holidaymakers are driving much of the recovery. From the Republic’s perspective, the balance so far favours outward travel. April’s Irish Tourism Industry Confederation dashboard recorded 740,000 overseas arrivals for the month, 21 per cent behind April 2019.

The 1.9 million travellers that the Republic had lured in 2022 to the end of last month was 35 per cent less than two years ago. Emirates is seeing a fair inward and outward balance, but a share of those flying back here are Irish people living abroad.

Business travel

Business travellers make up airlines’ other key constituency. Embleton said that, in the Republic, this group was lagging those from other countries. She put it down to the State’s cautious post-Covid re-opening rather than to any general trend.

During the pandemic, the consensus was, that once it was over, corporates would continue relying on Teams and Zoom, despite their multiple drawbacks, and that businesspeople would be slower to take to the skies than holidaymakers.

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