Airsickness: EasyJet’s struggle to stay aloft during the pandemic

May 18, 2021, 7:00 AM UTC
EasyJet airplanes parked on the tarmac during the official opening of Berlin Brandenburg Airport on Oct. 31, 2020. The airline has differentiated itself from other budget carriers by serving top-tier European airports. But the strategy also burdens EasyJet with higher costs as it tries to recover from the pandemic.
Hannibal Hanschke—Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Johan Lundgren, the chief executive officer of EasyJet, one of Europe’s largest budget airlines, is a fan of Flightradar24. The website features a map of the world that displays a small airplane icon for every flight in the air, based on radar and transponder data. Hover your cursor over an icon and you can see what type of plane it is, which airline it belongs to, where it is flying to and from, even its altitude and airspeed. 

Lundgren says he likes the site because it keeps airlines honest: When customers can see that their inbound aircraft hasn’t even taken off from its previous destination yet, there’s no point in feeding them the bad news with an eyedropper, as airlines traditionally had done, gradually announcing slightly longer delays. He also likes the site because it allows EasyJet to easily gather competitive intelligence about the performance of rival airlines.

Still, Lundgren could not have been happy with the Flightradar24 map on a Tuesday morning in late April. Just two EasyJet aircraft were in the air, one en route from London’s Gatwick Airport to Lyon in France; another from Belfast to the English Channel island of Jersey. Normally there would have been close to 100. But nothing has been normal for EasyJet since March 23, 2020. That’s the day the U.K. government first advised Britons abroad to return home as soon as possible in advance of impending travel restrictions because of the growing coronavirus pandemic. 

Now, more than a year later, with the pandemic still raging, and with many countries, including the U.K., having toughened travel restrictions in response to new strains of the virus, the airline industry’s hopes for an early recovery are descending faster than an Airbus A320 on final approach to EasyJet’s home base at Luton Airport. And while optimism about leisure travel in Europe is slowly rekindling—this week, the U.K. announced a resumption of international travel to a limited number of destinations—EasyJet still faces plenty of potential turbulence, as the likelihood of a robust summer season recedes. 

CEO Johan Lundgren in front of an EasyJet Airbus A320 in Berlin in October 2020.
Christoph Soeder—Picture Alliance via Getty Images

Airlines in general are already coming off their worst year on record: Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the industry collectively lost $118 billion in 2020, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). The carriers were expected to pare their loses to about $38 billion this year, as vaccines are rolled out across the world. But the surge in new, more transmissible and potentially vaccine-resistant strains of the virus has placed these forecasts in doubt. 

EasyJet came into the pandemic in better shape than many airlines: It was profitable and had a strong balance sheet, with relatively low levels of debt. As a budget airline focused exclusively on short-haul flights within Europe, it had more flexibility than long-haul carriers to adjust its flight schedule, canceling flights without worrying about losing connections or violating alliance agreements. Still, it wasn’t spared from the industry’s general carnage. EasyJet’s revenues in 2019 were $8.9 billion, on which it made $600 million in profit. In 2020, sales cratered more than 50% to $4.2 billion, and the airline recorded its first ever annual loss: a jumbo jetliner-size blast of red ink totaling nearly $1.8 billion before tax. (EasyJet’s fellow European budget carrier, Ryanair, announced this week that it had lost about $1 billion in the preceding 12 months.)

The crisis has also posed complications for the 54-year-old Lundgren that his competitors don’t face, including some particularly unwelcome excess baggage in the form of Stelios Haji-Ioannou. Haji-Ioannou founded EasyJet in 1995, eventually using it as a springboard to create of an Easy-branded empire that extended from car rentals and pizza delivery to a hemp business. The 54-year-old Greek-Cypriot entrepreneur hasn’t had a formal management role in the airline since he stepped down as chairman in 2002, but he remained a major shareholder, owning more than a third of the company before the pandemic hit. And he was not a happy shareholder: For a decade, he had sparred with a succession of EasyJet CEOs and boards—faulting them for overly ambitious and costly expansion plans and for ordering too many new aircraft from manufacturing giant Airbus. When the pandemic struck, Haji-Ioannou decided to renew his pressure to convince the airline to abandon the purchase—ultimately mounting a proxy campaign to remove directors from the board.

Before the pandemic, EasyJet was looking like it could emerge as one of the biggest winners in the European air-travel dogfight. The airline had become Europe’s equivalent of Southwest in the U.S. Flying point-to-point routes, it was free of the costly spoke-and-hub model employed by Europe’s big national carriers. At the same time, it was wooing at least some business travelers by differentiating itself from no-frills rivals like Ryanair and Wizz, offering some perks and serving first-tier airports. And Lundgren, who took over in late 2017, had big plans to build on that differentiation with potentially lucrative new ventures, including vacation packages, more benefits for business, and a new loyalty program.

The pandemic, of course, wiped out business and leisure travel alike. Lundgren has pulled every financial lever available to him to keep EasyJet aloft. Now, at the cusp of a summer season that normally would be the source of the majority of EasyJet’s profits, the airline and its CEO face what could be a make-or-break season. If COVID doesn’t ease more quickly, and leisure travel doesn’t rebound as hoped, EasyJet’s hole will only get deeper, and its plans to grow could be spiked indefinitely. What happens to EasyJet, which had been one of the strongest players in the airline industry before COVID-19, could presage the entire sector’s fate: If EasyJet can’t come back strong, what airline can? 

Grounding planes, borrowing money

“We need to focus on the things we can control. Reducing the cost, managing the cash burn, and getting access to liquidity,” Lundgren told CNBC in November. To accomplish that, Lundgren has taken drastic steps. At the end of March 2020, EasyJet grounded its entire fleet. None would fly again until June 15. The company has announced plans to reduce its 15,000-person workforce by 30%. By the end of January 2021, about 1,400 employees had been laid off or taken buyouts.

The company negotiated with trade unions to move more of its pilots and cabin crew on to seasonal contracts, which would allow the company to better match its expenses to periods, such as the summer, when it generated more profit. It moved aircraft maintenance at three of its U.K. airports, which had been contracted out, back in-house. It renegotiated contracts with ground handling firms at several airports helping to lower costs.
These moves enabled EasyJet to reduce its operating costs, excluding fuel, by about 31% in the year through Sept. 30, 2020. The airline also managed to reduce its fuel cost per seat flown by 2.9% through a series of small changes: instructing pilots to use only one engine when taxiing, for example, and to climb to cruising altitude as fast as possible, since level, higher-altitude flying is more fuel-efficient. But these savings barely stanched the arterial bleed of cash gushing from the company’s coffers: In 2019, the airline’s operations had generated more than $1 billion in cash. In 2020, it hemorrhaged the same amount.

Out-of-use EasyJet planes on the tarmac at London’s Gatwick Airport on June 9, 2020.
Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Some wondered if Lundgren, who has a reputation for being a nice guy, had the stomach for the kind of aggressive cost cutting that running a budget airline, especially during a pandemic, demanded. “At a budget carrier, you need to be aggressive and ruthless and abrasive,” says Joachim Kotze, an airline industry analyst for financial research firm Morningstar. Kotze compared Lundgren to his rival CEO, Michael O’Leary, who runs Ryanair and has a reputation for being merciless at containing expenses and being generally combative. “He’s running the business to make it as lean as possible, and you can’t be a nice guy and do that,” Kotze says. (Lundgren declined to comment for this article.)

Given EasyJet’s cash burn, it needed to raise more money—and quickly. Many of EasyJet’s competitors in Europe are national flag carriers: Air France, KLM, Lufthansa, SAS, Iberia, TAP Air Portugal, Swiss Air, and British Airways. Although mostly private now, many of these airlines were once state owned, and some still have not insignificant government stakeholdings. There is national pride, not to mention jobs and pension payments, resting on their wings. So when the industry was slammed by COVID-19, government was responsive to pleas for help. Since March 2020, European governments have provided more than $32.2 billion in bailouts to the airline industry, through a mix of grants, loans, and debt-for-equity deals, according to a report from HSBC. “These large airline groups are so big and so important for so many economies that the national governments will do whatever they can to keep them alive,” says Dirk-Maarten Molenaar, a travel and tourism industry consultant at Boston Consulting Group

For an independent carrier like EasyJet, finding money was more complicated, especially since the U.K. government initially balked at providing the airline industry with a custom bailout package. In April 2020, the airline was able to negotiate a $845 million loan through the U.K. government’s COVID Corporate Finance Facility for large U.K. employers. EasyJet also drew down the entirety of its existing revolving credit facility—raising $500 million in cash. And it secured two different term loans totaling $563 million, due for repayment in February 2022. 

Finally, in February 2021, the company took advantage of a sudden uptick in investor confidence on the news that vaccinations in the U.K. might allow international travel to return by late summer. EasyJet raised $1.5 billion by selling seven-year bonds, with a 1.875% annual interest rate. In a sign of faith in EasyJet’s prospects, the bond sale was almost six-times oversubscribed. The company benefits from being one of just four airlines globally that currently have an investment-grade credit rating, according to Gerald Khoo, a transportation analyst with brokerage firm Liberum. (The others are rival budget airlines Ryanair and Wizz Air, as well as Southwest Airlines in the U.S., on which EasyJet originally based its business model.)

Compared to some of its low-cost rivals, EasyJet also owned more of its planes outright. Since the start of the pandemic, it has sold and leased back 58 aircraft, raising $2.1 billion. It now owns just over half its fleet, down from 70% in 2019—and six of every 10 planes it does own have been pledged as collateral against its loans. But the disposition of EasyJet’s fleet would soon reignite a long-simmering feud between EasyJet and its founder.

A fight with the founder

At the same time that it was offloading planes to raise cash and placing others into long-term storage in “boneyards,” the company still took delivery of 14 brand new Airbus A320 and A321 Neos. As a result, it finished 2020 with more aircraft in its fleet than it had at the beginning of the year, despite the pandemic-induced travel doldrums. EasyJet had a long-term contract with the aerospace giant that would require it to take delivery of more than 100 new planes, including at least 55 by 2024. Those planes are Airbus’s most fuel-efficient models, offering operational savings for EasyJet in the long run. But EasyJet’s contract required it to pay the aircraft maker at least $6 billion through 2023—a sum considerably greater than the airline’s entire current market capitalization. 

The purchases rankled Haji-Ioannou, who had opposed EasyJet’s tie-up with Airbus ever since it had been signed in 2013. The airline founder’s misgivings had only mounted after the aircraft maker agreed in January 2020 to deferred prosecution agreements with the U.S., France, and the U.K. and to pay billions of dollars in fines stemming from charges that it had for years routinely bribed airline executives to secure contracts.

When the pandemic struck, the aggrieved founder saw an opportunity to force EasyJet to abandon the deal. In March 2020, he wrote to EasyJet’s chairman, John Barton, and demanded the company terminate the contract, citing force majeure. If it failed to do so, he threatened to call a vote to remove one director from the board every seven weeks, until the board acquiesced. He also threatened to sue the airline if its payments to Airbus pushed it toward bankruptcy. 

Stelios Haji-Ioannou, EasyJet’s founder, used his leverage as the airline’s largest shareholder to launch a protracted fight with management over the airline’s plans to upgrade its fleet.
Chris Ratcliffe—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Lundgren and the board were frustrated. The CEO told the Financial Times that Haji-Ioannou’s campaign was “highly undesirable,” “unhelpful,” and a “distraction.” EasyJet pointed out that the contract contained no force majeure clause. What’s more, it included maintenance and avionics support for EasyJet’s existing fleet. The airline couldn’t simply abandon it without jeopardizing any chance of a quick recovery when the crisis ended.

Lundgren also thought the contract made long-term strategic sense. The fuel-efficient jets could help EasyJet reduce its carbon footprint at a time when consumers and governments seemed increasingly likely to hold airlines accountable for their climate impact. Lundgren had been an industry leader in trying to position EasyJet for this new world. The airline began purchasing carbon offsets for the CO2 of all its flights in 2019. “The minute consumers start to make a choice based on this, and I think they will, an emphasis on sustainability will pay off,” says BCG consultant Molenaar, “and EasyJet has been out front in preparing for this.” 

When EasyJet’s board did not accede to his demands, Haji-Ioannou carried through on his threat—requesting a special meeting to vote on the removal of board member Andreas Bierwirth, a former Austrian Airlines and Lufthansa executive who Haji-Ioannou termed “a friend of Airbus.” When the board tossed out this request on a technicality, Haji-Ioannou resubmitted his call and asked for the removal of the chief financial officer, Andrew Findlay, too. This time, he succeeded in scheduling a showdown vote for May 22, 2020. 

In April 2020, EasyJet announced that it had reached an agreement with Airbus to defer delivery of 24 of the aircraft, meaning it would take on no new aircraft in 2021. It’s not clear what role Haji-Ioannou’s pressure played in this decision. But it was not the same as canceling its contract, and unsurprisingly, Haji-Ioannou was not satisfied. Noting that EasyJet had failed to say exactly how the deferral affected EasyJet’s cash burn, the founder said that EasyJet might have engaged in “market manipulation” by failing to disclose such details and by using overly optimistic forecasts for when the company’s revenues and profits might recover. He added Barton and Lundgren to the list of “scoundrels” he wanted to oust.

Haji-Ioannou kept upping the stakes. He offered a $7 million reward to any “whistleblower” who could provide him “useful information” leading to the cancellation of the Airbus contract. He said he had discovered a secret meeting in Switzerland, arranged by Airbus, between top EasyJet executives and a lawyer who, according to documents revealed in the Panama Papers leak, may have helped clients evade international sanctions through offshore shell companies. Haji-Ioannou insinuated that this was evidence of the corruption he’d long alleged. EasyJet denied this dinner took place. Haji-Ioannou also alleged three large minority EasyJet shareholders—the asset management companies Invesco, Phoenix Asset Management, and Ninety One—were “straw men,” secretly controlled by Airbus, since all three companies manage some of the aerospace giant’s employee pension assets.

But, in the end, Haji-Ioannou’s campaign failed to catch fire with other investors. The three most prominent firms that advise shareholders on how to cast ballots in proxy votes—ISS, Glass Lewis, and Pirc—all recommended against backing his proposals. In the May showdown vote, the disgruntled founder’s effort was roundly defeated, with 99% of the shares not held by the entrepreneur and his family casting ballots against removing the directors. Haji-Ioannou said the result was rigged, arguing that the fund companies with Airbus pension business should have been ineligible to vote. 

Barton, EasyJet’s chairman, tried to put the episode behind the company, saying publicly that he hoped EasyJet could reengage constructively with its founder, but that “the negative headlines and publicity has placed unnecessary pressure on a dedicated management team and negatively impacted the reputation of this great British and European brand.” Indeed, though Lundgren’s management team had won the showdown, there were signs of damage. Within weeks of the vote, Findlay, EasyJet’s CFO, announced his intention to step down, and analysts speculated that the stress of Haji-Ioannou’s campaign, on top of that caused by the pandemic, had taken a toll. “It is not helpful to have a shareholder barking up management’s neck the whole time,” Morningstar analyst Kotze says. Findlay said only that after almost six years with EasyJet, “it will be the right time to pass the financial reins to someone who will help take EasyJet into its next chapter,” and Lundgren said he was “sorry to see [Findlay] leave.”

In June, the airline found a deft way to simultaneously relieve the pressure from its cash burn and Haji-Ioannou: It raised more than $631 million to help it weather the pandemic by issuing new shares equivalent to 15% of the company’s outstanding share capital. That move also diluted Haji-Ioannou’s stake in the company’s stock from more than 34% at the beginning of 2019 to just under 30%, making it easier for EasyJet’s board to ignore the demands of its querulous founder. Not that he was going away. In fact, Haji-Ioannou continued to press his allegations that corruption underpinned the Airbus contract, raising the matter at EasyJet’s general meetings in July and December. But at the same time, Haji-Ioannou and his family sold off a portion of their shares, bringing their total holdings to less than 27% of the company by May 2020. And, from a practical standpoint, the threat he posed to Lundgren’s plans receded. 

Just a trickle of travel

Having fought off Haji-Ioannou, Lundgren and EasyJet’s C-suite faced other foes they couldn’t control. In mid-May 2020, the company revealed it had been hacked. The attackers stole more than 9 million customers e-mail addresses and travel details and also “accessed” credit and debit card details of more than 2,200 customers. Worse, the company had discovered the hack back in January but hadn’t notified people whose credit card details had been accessed until April, and was only now letting other customers know. That delay exposed EasyJet to greater risk of both hefty fines from Britain’s chief data protection regulator and class-action lawsuits from customers. Today, a year after Easy Jet’s announcement, those perils still hang over the airline. 

Front and center was the existential risk of the coronavirus. The airline resumed flying on June 15, 2020, with limited routes within the U.K. and to France. Like all airlines, it instituted new procedures: increased cleaning, mandatory masks for passengers and crew, and no meal service. It hoped these measures allow the public to feel confident flying again. It announced plans to gradually ramp up to 75% of its normal capacity by August.

As it turned out, it wouldn’t need those flights. Budget airlines that rely on the leisure market make most of their money from April to August. In 2020, those months were grim. Hopes for an early summer 2020 recovery were dashed when the U.K. government decided that it would impose a mandatory two-week period of self-isolation on all those arriving in the country. Under pressure from airlines, it later lifted this policy for some European destinations, only to reimpose it as infection rates soared again in Spain and France. From June 15, when EasyJet resumed flying, through September 2020, it carried 9.5 million passengers, compared to 37.1 million in the same period the year before.

Empty EasyJet check-in desks at Gatwick Airport. EasyJet flew 9.5 million passengers from June through September 2020, nearly 75% fewer than in the same period in 2019.
Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images

Lundgren wasn’t completely despondent: Where bookings were allowed and quarantine rules not restrictive, passengers were coming back. But with new, more infectious variants of COVID-19 spreading rapidly in Europe, in October renewed lockdowns were imposed across many parts of the U.K. and from Helsinki to Tel Aviv. EasyJet announced it had lost more than $1 billion in the 12 months through September 2020. The next quarter was not much better: A U.K.-wide national lockdown was imposed in November and, after a brief easing of restrictions in the run-up to Christmas, again in late December. EasyJet was able to operate at only 18% of its 2019 capacity. For the battered airline, 2020 couldn’t end soon enough.

Beyond budget flying

To understand EasyJet’s prospects, it’s important to understand its strategic positioning. While it is often lumped into the same “European budget airline” category as Dublin-based Ryanair and upstart Hungarian carrier Wizz Air, there are some key differences between EasyJet and those other airlines. “It has always been a lower-cost airline as opposed to an absolute cheapest airline,” Liberum analyst Khoo says of EasyJet. “It has been a value-for-money proposition rather than trying to be the cheapest in the market.”

Ryanair and Wizz Air cater almost exclusively to leisure travelers. They fly into second- and even third-tier airports, where they control a dominant share of the gates and can drive tough bargains on any airport fees and charges for ground crews and baggage handlers. They have focused on expanding into new markets in Eastern Europe. And they are relentlessly focused on keeping per-seat costs down. EasyJet, on the other hand, flies fewer routes but operates from many more primary airports, with a heavier focus on Western Europe. It also offers passenger a few more extras, such as allowing them to check in at the airport without charge (Ryanair charges passengers who don’t check in online) and a loyalty program that confers priority boarding privileges. In this way, it has positioned itself as a more direct competitor to Europe’s traditional airlines.

Lundgren says he wants EasyJet to be the No. 1 or No. 2 airline by market share for each airport it serves. And he’s moved aggressively to grab additional takeoff and landing slots in markets he sees as important. When rival European budget carrier Air Berlin went belly up in 2017, Lundgren spent $48 million to buy its operations at several German airports and take on 25 of its airplanes. “I’ve always said the four core markets are where we want to put our focus on U.K., Germany, France and Italy,” he told the World Travel Market conference in 2018, shortly after the Air Berlin deal concluded.

But flying to those primary airports in Western Europe is more expensive. As a result, EasyJet occupies a kind of middle ground—in both pricing and costs—among European carriers. In 2019, excluding fuel and in constant currency, it cost EasyJet 4.45 European pennies per available seat kilometer, a key industry cost metric. The same figure for Ryanair was 2.25 pennies, while it was about 5 for British Airways and 5.37 for Air France and KLM. EasyJet’s decision to use its aircraft as collateral for loans it needed to get through the pandemic means that its cost base will be higher going forward, once debt service is included in the calculations, says Savanthi Syth, an airline analyst for brokerage Raymond James & Associates: “They’ve traded liquidity for today in exchange for their aircraft ownership costs going up in the future.”

In practice, this means EasyJet has little chance of beating Ryanair or Wizz head-to-head on routes and pricing. But EasyJet could steal an increasing amount of market share from the legacy full-service carriers. Many of those airlines are limping along on government funding they might never be able to repay, says Leah Ryan, managing director of Alton Aviation, a leading industry consultant.

EasyJet has other advantages over its full-service rivals too. Those airlines are more dependent on business travel, which many analysts forecast might not fully recover from the pandemic until 2024—if it ever recovers at all. Many full-service airlines are locked into hub-and-spoke flight networks that limit their scheduling flexibility, BCG’s Molenaar says. Budget airlines that fly point-to-point, such as EasyJet, can easily stimulate their demand by running price promotions and advertising and then shifting flight schedules to cover those new bookings. “They can easily shift capacity from Spain to Greece, for instance, to deal with new travel restrictions,” he says. 

Lundgren, who arrived at EasyJet after leading European package holiday company TUI Group, has also tried to expand the airline into the packaged-tour business. EasyJet’s new holiday division launched in December 2019, just months before the pandemic took hold. Yet Lundgren says his strategy is still valid, telling trade publication Travel Weekly that “holidays are going to lead the recovery.” Liberum analyst Khoo says the move into packaged holidays made strategic sense. “Given that they were doing almost nothing before, there is a big opportunity to move from zero to something,” he says of the holiday tours. But in the past, he says, most budget airlines have fallen down on execution, unable to make package holidays a profit-driver.

Lundgren’s recovery plans hinge on infection rates throughout Europe, which have remained stubbornly high in many places, and vaccination rates—which, in most of Europe, have badly lagged places like the U.S., U.K., and Israel. At the end of January, EasyJet announced that it had secured another $1.9 billion through a five-year loan, secured against its aircraft. That loan would buy EasyJet some more time. And the company continued to insist it saw the opportunity for wins amid the travel industry’s carnage: Europe’s legacy carriers were hurting even worse than EasyJet, which offered the discount airline a chance to gain new flight slots at key airports in Paris, Milan, London Gatwick, and Geneva. 

The airline’s hopes for summer 2021, like those of almost all airlines, rest on vaccinations. The U.K. is doing well: It had approved two vaccines—one from Pfizer and one from AstraZeneca—in December and a third, from Moderna, in early January; by mid-May it had given 68% of the adult population at least one shot. Ryanair had even tried to capitalize on this connection between vaccinations and travel in its marketing, rolling out at “jab and go” advertising slogan in January, which it had to withdraw after objections from Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority that it was not promoting responsible behavior. Still, the connection was critical for airlines. “The pace of recovery will be determined by vaccination rates,” Alton Aviation’s Ryan says.

The problem for EasyJet is that almost all the routes it flies involve Europe, and the continent was lagging far behind on vaccinations. By mid-May, most of the major European nations had administered first doses to just over a third of adults amid critical vaccine supply shortages and concerns about rare but dangerous blood clots linked to AstraZeneca’s and Johnson & Johnson’s vaccines.

Without a brisker vaccination pace, a third wave of infections keeps threatening to take hold in Europe. Meanwhile, the U.K. has announced international travel will resume as of May 17, but will operate according to a “traffic light system,” with arrivals from red-, yellow-, or green-designated countries subject to different requirements. Of popular holiday destinations, only Portugal and Gibraltar were put on the initial green list, with no requirement to self-isolate upon return. Most of Europe was in the yellow category, requiring 10 days of self-isolation when coming back, and with the U.K. government still advising against leisure travel. And at least one key holiday locale—Turkey—wound up on the red list, meaning those traveling there would have to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days. 

Taken together, those restrictions mean that summer 2021 is looking increasingly in doubt. 

Lundgren complains that the British government’s travel rules remain too onerous. The U.K. requires even those returning from “green” countries take COVID-19 tests before boarding a plane to return to the U.K. as well as within two days of returning. And the government has said the second of these has to be a more accurate PCR test, which can cost as much as £219 ($302) per passenger. In essence, Lundgren told the BBC, this means only the rich can go on holidays: The expense of these tests would be “way over and above what the cost is of an average EasyJet fare,” he said. The airline cut a deal with a health care company to provide the test at half the normal cost, or £60 per test. That’s better, but still a big burden on, say, a family of four. With so much uncertainty, leisure travelers are holding off on booking summer flights, prolonging EasyJet’s pain.

Playing the blues

In a vast hangar on the outskirts of Gatwick Airport, one of EasyJet’s big hubs, sit a row of five space-age pods, painted in EasyJet’s trademark orange-and-white colors. Each stands elevated on hydraulically controlled legs, with doors reached by a short metal staircase. These are flight simulators that recreate the exact cockpit of an Airbus A320 aircraft. It is here that EasyJet’s pilots practice and maintain their skills. And the simulators have been kept busy virtually around the clock, even during the pandemic, as EasyJet has sought to keep its pilots properly certified so they will be ready when flying returns. 

But the training center is the only part of EasyJet’s operation at Gatwick still humming. Out on the tarmac, a short distance from the simulators, almost a dozen real EasyJet A320s sit idle. Where normally there would be the roar of engines and the trundling rumble of buses and baggage carts, the whistling wind is often the only sound.

It was enough to make any airline CEO play the blues. In an interview with London’s Evening Standard newspaper in January, Lundgren sounded down, admitting he missed frequent trips to the Spanish island of Majorca, where he owns a house and where he and a friend also own a recording studio. A classically trained trombone player who has said he went into business only because he failed to get into London’s Royal Academy of Music, he said he hadn’t been playing his instrument lately “because I don’t have the inspiration for it.” He said he’d been trying to draw lessons in resilience by rereading Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, finding perhaps parallels between the Job-like fate of its protagonist and his own plight. “It is about a man who faces challenge after challenge but he keeps his mood and rises up again,” Lundgren told the newspaper. “It helps to remember that while you can’t control what happens to you, you can always control your response. Feeling powerless is one of the worst feelings, not just in business.”

EasyJet’s powerless plight is typical of the entire industry’s. As hard as it has tried to inoculate itself against the pressures of the pandemic and to convince passengers it will be safe to fly, its fate remains up in the air, subject to unexpected and unwelcome turbulence. 

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