Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

How European and British airlines are responding to the COVID-19 outbreak

What do the travel bans mean for local airlines and passengers who were scheduled to fly?

To limit the spread of COVID-19 globally, the European Union (EU) has introduced a travel ban that prohibits most foreigners from entering the region for 30 days.

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Long-term EU residents, diplomats, and some healthcare and transport workers are exempt from the ban.

"We reaffirmed the need to work together and to do everything necessary to tackle the crisis and its consequences. The priority is the health of our citizens," European Council president Charles Michel told the media on Tuesday. 

Meanwhile, in an address to his country, United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson said people "should stop unnecessary contact with others and stop unnecessary travel". 

This latest update follows on from the US government announcing a travel ban earlier this week that prevents foreign nationals from Europe, the UK, and Ireland from entering the US. 

So, where do these travel restrictions leave airlines and their passengers?

Elsewhere around the world:
How Asia Pacific airlines are handling coronavirus travel restrictions

How North American airlines are responding to COVID-19 travel bans

British Airways

British Airways' parent company International Consolidated Airways (IAG) has acknowledged that due to the COVID-19 travel bans, it has forced the company to suspend flights to China, reduce capacity on Asian routes, and cancel all flights to, from, and within Italy. 

Consequently, the company said it expects for a reduction to its fleet capacity by at least 75% for April and May.

"We have seen a substantial decline in bookings across our airlines and global network over the past few weeks and we expect demand to remain weak until well into the summer," IAG chief executive Willie Walsh said. 

"We are therefore making significant reductions to our flying schedules. We will continue to monitor demand levels and we have the flexibility to make further cuts if necessary."

As for customers, the company is giving passengers the flexibility to change their travel destination, travel date, or both for free on all new bookings from now to May 31, as well as any existing bookings that depart up to May 31. Otherwise, there is the option to make a cancellation in exchange for a travel voucher that is valid for travel within 12 months from the original departure date.

Ryanair

The COVID-19 travel bans have also had similar impacts on Ryanair. The airline has announced it expects to reduce its seat capacity by up to 80% for April and May. At the same time, the airline is looking to ground the majority of its fleet across Europe over the next 7-10 days.

The airline noted it has not ruled out grounding its fleet entirely, after seeing a substantial decline in bookings over the last two weeks, which Ryanair expects will continue for the foreseeable future. 

"Ryanair is taking all actions necessary to cut operating expenses, and improve cash flows at each of our airlines," Ryanair's Michael O'Leary said.

"Ryanair is a resilient airline group, with a very strong balance sheet, and substantial cash liquidity, and we can, and will, with appropriate and timely action, survive through a prolonged period of reduced or even zero flight schedules, so that we are adequately prepared for the return to normality, which will come about sooner rather than later as EU governments take unprecedented action to restrict the spread of Covid-19."

To reflect these changes, the Irish budget airline has removed the flight change fee for all existing bookings in April. Customers will only have to pay for the fare difference. 

Air France-KLM

The airline has said that due to increasing travel restrictions and a sharp decline in demand, it will be forced to reduce its flight capacity by up to 90% over the next few days. The reductions are expected to last two months. 

To assist affected passengers, Air France is offering those who have purchased a ticket for a flight departing before May 31 the option to postpone their departure date for free, under the condition the new trip begins no later than November 30. 

Passengers are also welcome to cancel their flight in exchange for a travel voucher, Air France stated, highlighting it will be valid for one year on all Air France, KLM, Delta Air Lines, and Virgin Atlantic flights. Similarly, those passengers whose flights have been cancelled will be offered a travel voucher.

EasyJet

Like other airlines, EasyJet passengers are being offered the choice to change the date, destination, or both for free. Customers are only required to pay the fare price difference. This applies to both existing and new bookings until further notice, the company said. 

It added that due to uncertain times, it will not provide any financial guidance for the remainder of the FY20 financial year. Instead, the company said it will focus on "every action to remove cost non-critical expenditure from the business at every level". 

"Aircraft groundings will remove significant levels of variable costs," EasyJet said. 

Lufthansa 

According to Lufthansa Group -- which is responsible for airlines including Lufthansa, SWISS, Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines, and Air Dolomiti -- it has decided to reduce its short and long-haul schedule, after seeing a sharp decline in the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South America. 

"Overall, the Lufthansa Group's seating capacity on long-haul routes will be reduced by up to 90%. A total of 1,300 weekly connections were originally planned for summer 2020," the company said.

"Within Europe the flight schedule will also be further reduced. Starting tomorrow, around 20% of the originally planned seating capacity will still be offered. Originally, some 11,700 weekly short-haul flights were planned for summer 2020 with Lufthansa Group airlines."

In addition, Austrian Airlines will temporarily suspend all scheduled flights as of March 19. 

"Austrian Airlines is thus reacting to the entry restrictions imposed by many countries in response to the massive spread of the coronavirus," Lufthansa Group said.

Due to these changes, customers who hold tickets for cancelled or existing Lufthansa Group airline flights have the option to rebook their flight for free at a later date or for another destination. New flights need to be booked by June 1 for travel dates up to and including December 31. It applies for tickets booked up to and including March 12 and that have a confirmed travel date up to April 30. 

Aegean Airlines

Aegean Airlines said until the end of April, the "majority" of its international network will be gradually discontinued while the frequency of domestic flights will also be "significantly curtailed". 

The decision comes in addition to the airline instituting a zero rebooking fee policy for passengers who wish to book for later dates. 

Further, passengers whose flights have been cancelled but do not want to immediately rebook will receive a travel voucher, which will be valid for one year after it's issued and can be used on any route in Aegean and Olympic Iar's network.

Alitalia

Since the Italian government introduced a decree on March 10 that strictly bans all public gatherings and activities, which is due to be enforced until April 3, Italy's flagship airline said it has suspended any national and international service to and from Milan airport, but will continue to operate with reduced flights between Venice and Rome. 

The Italian airline added it has put in place a number of special flights to facilitate the return travel for Italian citizens and other travellers in countries where restrictive travel measures are in place. This includes flights to and from New York and London.

Passengers who purchased an issued ticket by April 3 for a flight departing until May 31 can request to change their booking for another trip before December 31, or a travel voucher, valid for one year. Meanwhile, those who have had their flights cancelled can opt for any of the said options or be refunded the price of the ticket, or the remaining value of the part of the trip, which has yet to be completed. 

Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA

Norwegian passengers affected by COVID-19 travel restrictions and who hold selected tickets that are booked up to and including March 22 are being offered waived rebooking fees. It's applicable to LowFare, LowFare+, and Premium tickets. 

It comes as the company grapples with the escalating COVID-19 situation. Norwegian revealed it will temporarily lay off more than 7,300 employees, which equates to 90% of the company's workforce, and will include pilots, cabin crew, and maintenance and administrative staff. 

Additionally, as of March 21 the company will primarily fly a reduced schedule domestically in Norway and between the Nordic capitals. The limited schedule is expected to remain in place until at least April 17, Norwegian said. 

"What our industry is now facing is unprecedented and critical as we are approaching a scenario where most of our airplanes will be temporarily grounded," said Norwegian CEO Jacob Schram.

"Several governments in Europe have already said that they will do everything they can to ensure that their airlines can continue to fly when society returns to normalcy."  

Turkish Airlines

Turkish Airlines said as it closely monitors the situation that arises from COVID-19, it is applying a zero change fee for international flights for tickets that were purchased before 31 March for flights up to December 31. New trips are required to be completed by 28 February 2021. 

The airline has also suspended all flights with departure points in Germany, France, Spain, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Austria, and Holland until April 17.

"As the airline that always puts the travel security at the forefront, Turkish Airlines will continue to monitor the latest developments on the situation with the national and international health authorities and take appropriate precautions," it said.