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How COVID-19 is impacting airline emissions

written by Hannah Dowling | June 30, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic could lead to worse aviation emissions despite the significant reduction of planes in the sky, a report by HSBC has claimed.

The analysis reveals that, while reduced flying capacity has been helpful in reducing CO2, it has also led to the delay of new, more eco-friendly aircraft. 

“Prior to the pandemic, all airlines were set to improve their unit emissions performance from 2019 to 2023, thanks to fleet renewal and the optimisation of configurations,” the HSBC analysts noted.

However, following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for air travel has drastically fallen around the globe, launching airlines around the globe into a state of ongoing economic flux.

This has seen some airlines go completely under, while a majority are on the brink of survival thanks to government bailouts. It has also lead to a drastic increase in the number of airlines that are delaying the delivery of their upcoming aircraft orders, or cancelling their orders entirely.

As such, the bank’s analysts stated that it expects “capital expenditure on new aircraft to be lower than previously envisaged, leading to slower improvement in unit emissions”.

HSBC stated that while the pandemic is prompting the retirement of some older, less-efficient aircraft such as Airbus A340s, A380s and Boeing 747s, the huge reductions in capital will likely lead to a “delay” in the retirement of mid-tier aircraft, which are less energy efficient than their newer, updated counterparts.


However, fundamental changes to the way that customers travel in the aftermath of the pandemic could see these figures drastically change.

HSBC stated that pre-pandemic rates of corporate travel are set to reduce sharply in the upcoming recovery period ahead, which will likely see the likes of Europe’s largest airline groups, including IAG, Air France-KLM and Lufthansa reduce the share of premium seats on their aircraft. 

A larger share of economic, higher density seating will act to improve emissions on a per-passenger basis, potentially to an extent that could even outweigh the damage of utilising older, less efficient aircraft, according to the analysts.

For example, HSBC expects IAG’s 2023 emissions per available seat-kilometre (ASK) to be 86.6g of CO2, against a pre-COVID-19 estimate of 85.2 and the current level of 95.9. 

But if the carrier were to reduce its number of premium seats, and instead opt for higher density seating, it could be as low as 79.4 by 2023.

Out of Europe’s three largest low-cost carriers – easyJet, Ryanair and Wizz Air – easyJet currently has the highest CO2 emissions per ASK, due to the fact that it operates the smallest aircraft, while Wizz, operating larger A321s, has the lowest. 

The gap between easyJet and Wizz is only expected to grow, following easyJet’s announced to defer its 24 ordered aircraft deliveries, whereas Ryanair and Wizz are both intending to “push on with their fleet development plans”.

With this in mind, easyJet’s CO2 per ASK is expected to decline to 80.8g by 2023 from 82.9g currently, however, prior to COVID, it was expected to fall as low as 79.3g. 

Meanwhile, Wizz’s emissions are expected to reduce from 73.1g to 69.4g and Ryanair’s from 81.4g to 78.9g.

These examples highlight the difference that will be made by upgrading aircraft on CO2 emissions, versus maintaining older, less efficient models.


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