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‘Almost Without Precedent’: Airline Industry Hit Hard by Coronavirus

The coronavirus could wipe out between $63 billion and $113 billion in worldwide airline revenues this year, an industry trade group said on Thursday, as carriers around the world ground planes, waive fees and announce substantial reductions in service as demand for flights spirals downward.

“In little over two months, the industry’s prospects in much of the world have taken a dramatic turn for the worse,” said Alexandre de Juniac, president of the trade group, the International Air Transport Association. The rapid shift in fortune is “almost without precedent,” he said.

The effect of the coronavirus is hitting an industry that has already been roiled in the past year by the grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max plane worldwide.

The group’s lower $63 billion figure is more than double the estimate that it put out just two weeks ago. Since the outbreak began, industry share prices have fallen almost 25 percent, or about five times more than during the 2003 SARS crisis, according to the group.

That conservative scenario assumes a sharp downturn in countries with more than 100 confirmed virus infections and an erosion of consumer confidence elsewhere, resulting in an 11 percent drop in global passenger demand for the year. Passenger traffic would fall 24 percent in Italy and 23 percent in China; Japan, Singapore, South Korea, France, Germany and Iran would all also see steep drop-offs.

The more severe possibility, which assumes a sharp downturn in any country with at least 10 coronavirus cases, would result in a 19 percent global decline in passenger revenues, on par with the global financial crisis. About two dozen countries would see passenger traffic decline by more than 20 percent. The United States and Canada would see traffic fall 10 percent and revenue decrease by more than $21 billion.

While the outbreak has drawn comparisons with previous moments of upheaval, including following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the airline industry is in better shape today, analysts for Credit Suisse said in a note on Thursday.

“The structure of the industry in the U.S. (and generally outside Asia) is drastically different today than in any prior crisis, with fewer players and balance sheet strength in particular offering significant comfort as airlines look to weather a very challenging few months,” they said.

On Thursday, Lufthansa Group, whose airlines include Lufthansa German Airlines, Swiss Air and Austrian Airlines, started putting in place a widespread reduction in service that will cut capacity by about 25 percent. As a result, the carrier will ground 150 planes out of a fleet of 770. It will also cancel 7,100 flights in Europe in March.

In the United States, airlines are starting to make similar reductions in response to a recent rapid decline in demand, even for domestic travel. In a securities filing on Thursday, Southwest Airlines, which offers little international service, said that it had seen “healthy” revenue increases in the first two months of the year, but its position has swiftly changed.

“In recent days, the company has experienced a significant decline in customer demand, as well as an increase in trip cancellations,” the airline said, attributing it to fear over the virus.

As a result, the airline updated its earnings estimate for the first quarter and said it expected the plunging demand to cost $200 million to $300 million in the first quarter of this year. At best, it now projects revenue to rise 1 percent compared to the first quarter of last year; at worst, it will fall 2 percent. The airline had previously said it expected revenue for the quarter to climb between 3.5 and 5.5 percent.

Some of the virus’s effects will be offset by lower-than-expected fuel prices and a mild winter, Southwest said. As a result, it expects first-quarter operating costs to rise only 5 to 7 percent, compared to a previous estimate of 6 to 8 percent, with much of that cost driven by the grounding of Boeing’s 737 MAX jet.

On Wednesday, United Airlines announced plans to cut international service in April by about 20 percent and domestic service by about 10 percent, while JetBlue said it would reduce service temporarily by about 5 percent. Both airlines also announced moves like hiring freezes that were intended to shore up cash.

During the SARS crisis of 2003 and the MERS outbreak a decade later, airlines were able to entice hesitant travelers by reducing fares, but that doesn’t appear to be working as well this time, said Bill Franke, the founder and managing partner of Indigo Partners, a private equity firm invested in several low-cost airlines around the world.

“The traveling public has essentially taken the view that they don’t know enough to know that they should travel or shouldn’t travel,” he said at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s annual Aviation Summit on Thursday.

In the United States, many major airlines have waived change or cancellation fees on any bookings made in the coming weeks.

“These are extraordinary times,” Mr. de Juniac said in the statement.