Don’t be fooled by the creeping sense of normality: airlines are still very much fighting for their survival. Despite the positive signs and optimism that the pace of vaccinations in Europe has picked up, and summer travel might offer a boost to the travel industry, the situation is still fragile and uncertain. And Europe is one signature away from another major blow that could derail the efforts of EU airlines to recover.
Pre-COVID, the EU Commission has negotiated an Air Transport Agreement with Qatar. Given the minuscule size of the Qatari market compared to the huge European market, this agreement would in fact allow for the immediate and very significant opening of the EU market for Qatar Airways – and this with very little or nothing in return to gain for European airlines. For the agreement to enter into force, a unanimous sign-off by the EU Council of Ministers is required, which has not yet taken place, although a decision is expected very soon. European pilots and numerous airlines have repeatedly been calling for this to be postponed and the need for such an agreement – reassessed due to the changed post-COVID aviation landscape.
The state-owned airline has received unlimited state support from the oil-rich nation even before the pandemic. For Qatar Airways, COVID did not become a synonym for a crisis. The airline managed to stay afloat easily, flying more than most other airlines in the world, despite the lack of demand.
The agreement sparks fear that the envisaged market-opening could be the death blow to European aviation or at least a significant part of its airlines. European airlines can hardly take any more pressure and even more fierce competition – from one of the wealthiest states worldwide. Competing with a central bank of a rich country is something different from competing with another airline.
The EU-Qatar agreement sparks fear that the envisaged market-opening could be the death blow to European aviation
EU airlines knocked on EU & government doors asking for financial help, loans and payroll support in order to stay afloat. Pilots and many airlines see the daunting possibility that the EU-Qatar agreement will exacerbate the already catastrophic impact of COVID on aviation jobs. More than 200.000 aviation jobs were lost in Europe, 18.000 of those – pilot jobs.
European pilots have already called on the EU Commission to postpone the agreement. There are solid arguments to justify such a move: the EU-Qatar agreement is based on an analysis performed before the pandemic. Currently, demand for long-haul travel remains close to zero. Most airlines do not expect a return of traffic to the 2019 levels before 2024. While a number of other decisions in the EU system have been postponed or will be re-evaluated as a result of the COVID crisis, this agreement remarkably goes straight to signing without a new analysis of the major consequences of the pandemic on European aviation.
Even without a detailed impact assessment, it is clear that the sector needs time to recover. Right now, the last thing airlines need is more competition from foreign carriers. Nor would passengers' travel needs surge in the coming months. The reasons that justified the very existence of this agreement – more competition and increased capacity – have vanished. European aviation has enough difficulties. While the EU may not have the magic powers to stop the pandemic, it does have the tools to stop what could be a major – and possibly the final – blow to our industry: the EU-Qatar agreement.