With airlines around the world reeling from the impact of the coronavirus outbreak, and the very real risk that some will be unable to survive the effects of the pandemic-led slowdown or shutdown, attention remains focussed on when the industry will recover and how long that recovery will take.
There's no model for this – no modern-times equivalent to draw upon – but according to global travel specialists Atmosphere Research Group, that recovery timeline will slowly stretch out for two full years after COVID-19 is declared as being "under control".
That of course remains the X-factor, and the San Francisco think-tank hasn't defined what this milestone may look like: is it the infection curve being well and truly flattened, or does it mean the arrival and widespread distribution of a vaccine?
However, Atmosphere Research Group concurs with other forecasters and industry executives in that the recovery will be a gradual return rather than a fast bounce-back, and led by domestic travel.
Airlines are likely to rebuild their networks, especially on the international front, beginning with key routes but with a strategic focus on capacity which will favour smaller and more fuel-efficient aircraft such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 over the likes of the double-decker Airbus A380.
Estimated recovery timeline
So how does this play out over the next few years, and who will the airlines be looking to when it comes to filling those aircraft?
For the sake of pegging Atmosphere Research Group's sliding timeline against the calendar, let's assume that the coronavirus is generally declared as being "under control" towards the end of this year.
The first 6-9 months of post-coronavirus travel (mid-late 2021, on our ambit timeline) will see what Atmosphere terms 'tiptoe travellers' venturing out.
Although this group will include some business travellers, it's expected to be primarily personal and leisure-based trips. This 'first to fly' brigade will be "better educated" and be drawn from the highest income groups, suggests Atmosphere, and can be described as "cabin fever escapees'. They'll mainly be setting out on domestic travel but also chalking up some long-range international trips.
Across the 8-16 month mark (through to mid-2022) Atmosphere predicts a wave of what it calls 'pioneers'. This group will be led by business travellers as well as mid-to high-tier frequent flyers, with household income of US$125k and higher, and be venturing out on mainly long-range international flights.
From 12-18 months they'll be joined by a rush of 'fast followers', as the industry sees a 'near-normal volume of business travellers' aligned with strong bookings for the premium cabins of business and first class. Late 2022, then, is when business travel will largely be back to normal, or at least as close to the old normal as the new normal will get.
At 16-24 months after COVID-19 is considered under control (the end of 2022, if COVID-19 is under control by the end of this year), it's time for leisure travellers to return en masse as the industry reaches "80-90% of pre-virus leisure volume", while at 24+ months (2023) Atmosphere expects travel to be "at or above pre-virus traffic".