England has begun a new national lockdown this week that includes a ban on leisure travel in and out of the country. That’s terrible news for British airlines, not least among them the largest UK carrier British Airways. Like most airlines, BA has been slowly rebuilding its network out of London Heathrow (LHR) and restarting flights since the lows of last spring. For the most part we’ve seen a positive trajectory, even as autumn arrived. Looking at the flights tracked by Flightradar24 in September and October, we can see gradual increases in service to many cities – even as they’ve remained well below normal numbers. Toward the end of October the total departures by BA had already started to dip, but only by a little. Here, a look at the data and how the British Airways network has fared this autumn.
From September 1 through October 26, British Airways flew 16,311 departures. Daily departures broke the 400-mark a couple of times in October, and many days saw departures in the high 300s.
The lockdown effect
Over the next few weeks that will change, although we don’t yet know for sure by how much. For example in BA’s Heathrow to US network we’ve already seen flights to San Francisco, Boston and Newark cancelled, at least for the month of November. Los Angeles, Seattle, Miami, Dallas, Chicago, Washington DC and New York JFK are still running for the moment. Further last-minute changes are of course possible.
Up until the end of October, we saw a variety of movements in terms of how often BA was serving certain cities. In Europe cities like Amsterdam, Istanbul, Belfast, Stockholm and Berlin saw increases (they roughly doubled). Madrid saw a significant increase, from 3 weekly to 19. Others, like Budapest and Geneva, stayed relatively constant. On the other hand we saw drops in the number of flights mostly to leisure destinations with nice weather, like Corfu and Faro. Reykjavik, interestingly, saw flights added back, from none at the start of September to a handful per week in October.
Long-haul was relatively stable
Long distance flights for the most part saw less change, although notably flights to Tokyo and Seoul did restart, with just a few per week. Many other cities, like Toronto, Washington DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco, stayed constant with daily departures. New York flights increased slightly. Weekly Mumbai flights doubled, on the other hand. Lagos went from 2 weekly to 7 and Abuja flights returned to the network, no doubt a reflection of the reopening of borders into Nigeria. In the last two weeks of October Hong Kong hit a peak in weekly flights (10). Bridgetown, Barbados went from 3 weekly to 8. Conservative numbers overall, but with some notable increases.
If we look at which aircraft types BA has used most recently, there are some notable trends from September and October. Use of the A320 in particular went up in October, from around 500 per week in early September to over 1000 per week in most of October. The build-up of the long-haul network is most evident in the growing use of 777s, both -200 (772) and -300ER (77W), and the 787-8 (788). The 772 saw usage roughly double in terms of weekly departures during that time, and the 77W and 788 weren’t far behind. The A350 and the larger Dreamliners, the 787-9 and -10, saw mostly stable numbers.
Even before the lockdown announcement, and even as flight frequencies were increased in some markets, many of British Airways long-haul flights were running with very low passenger counts. I saw that for myself when I flew in late October from Stockholm to London and then onward to Washington DC on British Airways new A350-1000.
While the A350 and BA’s new Club Suite business class both made for a very nice flight, it was eerie to be on such an empty plane. There were three people in the entire business class cabin of 56 seats. Economy wasn’t looking much better. The Stockholm to London portion, on the other hand, was packed full. This mirrors trends we’ve seen in the western hemisphere wherein intra-European and domestic flights in the Americas are much more fully booked than long international legs. No surprise when there is still a US-Europe travel ban in place in both directions.
Why keep flying?
One reason to keep flying empty planes might be that cargo demand remains strong – and airlines can make up for losses in the passenger cabin with cargo revenue. We’ve looked at that phenomenon on this blog a few times during the pandemic, for example here and here. However, there’s no question that current conditions are leading to airlines losing lots of money overall, and new national lockdowns in Europe will be putting an added strain on carriers there.
We’ll plan to come back to this and take a look at what happens to British Airways flight numbers during the course of November. It will no doubt look concerning when compared to the numbers here – which though conservative, at least showed a mostly positive trend. Here’s hoping airlines can get back to recovery mode again soon.