The day aviation’s been waiting for: A first-look at Summer flying as the ban on international leisure travel is eased

After 19 weeks without international leisure travel, today marks the day international holidays can finally resume. Following the government announcement of a UK traffic light travel system, we look at how airlines have responded by adapting their summer plans. 

Ongoing travel restrictions have left the UK’s aviation market substantially reduced, with the first 6 weeks of the Summer 2021 (S21) season seeing an 84% decline in traffic versus 2019 (-42.9 million seats). Reductions in Covid-19 cases and the success of the UK’s vaccine programme have given the industry reasons to be optimistic, however international travel restrictions remain the key factor determining when widespread travel will return.

Airlines have been restricted in their ability to plan for the remainder of this summer, with some operators holding substantial volume for June onwards whilst awaiting decisions on which destinations will be feasible to operate. The 7th May announcement on the UK’s traffic light travel system has provided some clarity in the short-term, enabling airlines to identify which routes can operate with viable seat loads in the coming months. This has driven significant schedule change with seat volumes for June reduced by over 25% since the traffic light system announcement. Airlines have cut back flights based on the traffic light categories, providing a far more reliable schedule picture for May and June.

The impact of the government’s system is seen clearly in the changes to slot volume by country, with passenger demand for destinations directly driven by the traffic light system’s travel restrictions. Of the UK’s 20 busiest destinations for May – June, only Portugal has seen an increase in scheduled flights since the announcement, with the other 19 destinations seeing flights reduced or cancelled.


Figure 1 – Change in scheduled seats at ACL UK airports by origin / destination country following traffic light system announcement.


The influence of green-list inclusion on demand is clear; in the week following the announcement of the green-list countries, the number of scheduled flights operating to/from Portugal between May-June increased by over 20%, with over 200,000 additional seats available. Over 1,000 additional flights have been added operating to/from Portugal for May-June, with Faro (FAO), Lisbon (LIS) and Porto (OPO) appearing as the most in-demand destinations for the re-opening of international travel.


Figure 2 – UK-Portugal total flights by route scheduled for May-June 2021 at ACL UK airports.


Flights operating to/from Portugal increased to over 10% of all scheduled international travel for 17th-30th May. This represents a significant increase from 4% of all international flights in S19.

The traffic light system has also driven cancellations for red-listed countries, with the increased isolation period and testing required likely to reduce demand for these routes. Of the busiest UK destinations, the greatest reduction in volume has been for Turkey. Flights for May-June have been substantially cut back (-45%) with 470,000 seats removed from airline schedules. This sharp reduction in capacity demonstrates the impact of the red list requirements on passenger demand, with other operators also indicating they will not be operating flights to/from red-listed destinations.

Airline schedules will continue to develop as further bookings indicate passenger intentions, however ACL now has a far clearer picture of the UK aviation market for this summer. Further changes to the Government’s traffic light lists are likely to trigger more schedule amendments, with the increase in capacity for Portugal giving a clear demonstration of the pent-up passenger demand that exists for S21. Countries added to the green list will likely stimulate an increase in passenger demand, prompting increases in capacity from airlines. In contrast countries moving from green to amber, or amber to red, may see capacity shrink, as demand is reduced due to the additional testing and isolation requirements for passengers. These insights further demonstrate the influence that the UK’s travel restriction system will continue to have on international travel this summer.

By Chris Butler – Airport Capacity Analyst


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