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London goes quiet mutated coronavirus strain drop in flights Icelandair Heathrow United Kingdom

London goes quiet: how the mutated coronavirus affected flights

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When the UK announced its discovery of the now-infamous mutated coronavirus strain just before Christmas, it caused a lot of headaches. New travel bans against Britain popped up around Europe and beyond. France even banned ground cargo traffic from the UK, leading to huge queues of trucks outside its southern ports. It was an ominous addition to the expected chaos and confusion due to set in when Brexit border restrictions would take effect as of December 31. Looking at the Flightradar24 data it would appear that this new, reportedly more contagious strain of the coronavirus had a significant impact on air travel in and out of London airports at the end of December.

The figures for total flight departures from the five major London airports – Heathrow, Gatwick, London City, Stansted and Luton – show a clear drop-off in traffic. It is true that flight numbers were low on many days in the beginning of December too. But recall that Britain was just exiting its second lockdown at that point, during which time all leisure travel by Britons was banned.

British Airways A350 London Heathrow traffic drop A350
A British Airways A350-1000 takes off from Heathrow with the control tower in the background.

The data shows there was then a corresponding build-up of flights through the month that peaked on December 20, with 614 departures from London airports.

Christmas cancelled

The days that follow should have marked the pre-Christmas travel rush, but instead there was a precipitous decline in flights. It appears that we can draw an (admittedly somewhat unscientific) correlation between the events around then and air traffic out of London. Officials made the announcement that the new strain of the virus was potentially 70% more infectious than previous strains on December 18. By December 21, more than 40 countries had banned all travel from the UK. It’s within that period, and the days that follow, that we see a clear decline.

Chart showing departures from London by airport

Flights to some cities stopped, but others saw no change

Oddly enough, flights to some destinations didn’t really decline until December 25. Amsterdam (AMS) is one example. The period from December 20 to 24 saw some of the highest number of departures to Amsterdam of the entire month. Dallas (DFW) saw no decline – but that makes sense because the US never instituted a travel ban against the UK. Other European cities did see a reduction after December 20. Berlin, Bucharest and Budapest all fell off to close to nothing. Not a single flight left for Buenos Aires or Casablanca after December 20. Hong Kong saw a steep decline as well. Interestingly, Johannesburg flights only stopped after December 24 when the UK instituted a ban on South African arrivals, citing their own concerning mutation of the virus. Coronavirus-era travel bans can be complex and multi-directional.

Chart showing domestic vs international departures from London airports in December

What did the major airlines do?

American Airlines saw no real drop-off in flights. Air India went down from 3 or 4 flights a day to just 1 and then none for the rest of the month. And what about British Airways, the dominant airline at Heathrow? Their flights have been cut on average by about half comparing mid-December to the run-up to Christmas and through the end of the month. Ryanair, for its part, had been flying a fairly reduced schedule throughout the month, with only a couple of high-traffic days before December 20, and were more or less back to their monthly average just after Christmas. Virgin Atlantic also saw little change throughout all this, likely because most of the flights they are currently operating are either to the US or cargo-only runs to elsewhere.

Chart showing flights by airlines with 3 or more average daily departures from London in December

Staggering numbers

Regardless of the ups and downs of December, the numbers for total departures out of London’s main airports are staggering. These numbers peaked at just over 600 on just a few days. The average for the whole month was closer to 350 per day. For the five airports in some of the busiest airspace in the world, that is shockingly low. Here’s hoping this will turn out to have been the low point on the road to recovery for British aviation.

Featured image © Leo Sheng
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