EasyJet Grounds Fleet As COVID-19 Pandemic Pushes Airlines To The Brink
British budget airline easyJet has grounded its fleet of 344 planes and has no clear idea when it might resume flights, it said on Monday March 30, highlighting the strain that the coronavirus pandemic has put on airlines.
EasyJet said that it will lay off its 4,000 UK-based cabin crew for two months, meaning that they won't work from April 1 but will get 80% of their average pay under a state job retention scheme.
The global health crisis has brought European air travel to a standstill, leaving airlines with no revenue and facing a struggle for survival.
Shares in easyJet lost as much as 10% in early trading on March 30, having halved in value over the last month. The airline now has a market capitalisation of approximately £2.3 billion.
"We think the group has enough liquidity to manage a short suspension of European air travel, but if the disruption proves prolonged, or the recovery is sluggish, easyJet could be in real trouble," said Hargreaves Landsdown analyst William Ryder.
EasyJet is under additional pressure from its biggest shareholder, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, who along with his family owns approximately a third of the airline's shares.
In a letter to easyJet's chairman on Sunday March 29, Haji-Ioannou said that the airline must cancel or renegotiate a £4.5 billion order for 107 Airbus planes because the extra aircraft will just destroy shareholder value.
EasyJet said that it is trying to reduce payments, including those on aircraft, and will respond to the letter privately.
The airline said that it is focused on short-term liquidity, including removing costs from the business and working with suppliers to defer and reduce payments where possible.
It said that grounding its fleet removes significant costs and that it is continuing to talk to UK pilots union BALPA about a potential deal with pilots.
"We are working tirelessly to ensure that easyJet continues to be well positioned to overcome the challenges of coronavirus," easyJet CEO Johan Lundgren said in a statement.
Haji-Ioannou has told the airline to try to raise money from shareholders, and offered to participate himself.
Management could face disruption if it does not address his worries over the Airbus order, which is due to be paid between 2020 and 2023, as he has threatened rolling general meetings to try to remove board members.
For easyJet cabin crew looking for something to do, Britain's National Health Service has asked them to volunteer at hospitals being set up to cope with the thousands of coronavirus patients expected in the coming weeks. Crew have first aid training and security clearance, making them ideal candidates.
EasyJet said that it is focused on using UK government measures already announced to help its finances during the coronavirus crisis and has no plans to ask for any bespoke support.
Some UK airlines had been hoping for a specific state aid package, but the government said last week that it will only consider stepping in once carriers have exhausted all other options, such as raising capital from existing investors.
On March 30, small regional British airline Loganair said that it is planning to ask the government for support, having already asked its owners for help.
"I do think that like the vast majority of UK airlines we will be going back to take up that invite for further conversation with the Treasury in the coming days because we have to," Loganair CEO Jonathan Hinkles told BBC radio.
Virgin Atlantic has already requested state aid, asking for a package of commercial loans and guarantees worth hundreds of millions of pounds, according to The Financial Times.