IATA – Airline debt to balloon by 28%: Debt levels will weigh down airline recovery

(Photo: Adrian Pingstone / Wikimedia Commons)

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has released analysis showing that the airline industry’s global debt could rise to $550 billion by year-end. It said that represents a $120 billion increase over debt levels at the start of 2020.
The study recorded $67 billion of the new debt is composed of government loans ($50 billion), deferred taxes ($5 billion) and loan guarantees ($12 billion).

$52 billion is from commercial sources including commercial loans ($23 billion), capital market debt ($18 billion), debt from new operating leases ($5 billion), and accessing existing credit facilities ($6 billion).

It emphasised that financial aid is a lifeline to enable carriers to survive the worst of the crisis, but noted that during the re-start period the industry’s debt load will be near $550 billion; a massive 28% increase.
Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general and CEO, commented: “Government aid is helping to keep the industry afloat. The next challenge will be preventing airlines from sinking under the burden of debt that the aid is creating.”
IATA’s figured showed that governments have committed to $123 billion in financial aid to airlines, but $67 billion of that will need to be repaid. The balance largely consists of wage subsidies ($34.8 billion), equity financing ($11.5 billion), and tax relief / subsidies ($9.7 billion). IATA said this is vital for airlines which will burn through an estimated $60 billion of cash in the second quarter of 2020 alone.

Mr de Juniac added: “Over half the relief provided by governments creates new liabilities. Less than 10% will add to airline equity. It changes the financial picture of the industry completely. Paying off the debt owed governments and private lenders will mean that the crisis will last a lot longer than the time it takes for passenger demand to recover.”

Regional variations

IATA stated that the $123 billion in government financial aid is equal to 14% of 2019’s total airline revenues ($838 billion) and noted that the regional variations of the aid dispersion indicate that there are gaps that will need to be filled.

2019 Revenues
($ billion)
Aid promised
($ billion)
% of 2019 Revenues
Global $838 $123 14%
North America $264 $66 25%
Europe $207 $30 15%
Asia-Pacific $257 $26 10%
Latin America $38 $0.3 0.8%
Africa and Middle East $72 $0.8 1.1%

(All data: IATA)

It said there are still large gaps in the financial aid needed to help airlines survive the COVID-19 crisis. It credited the US government for leading the way with its CARES Act being the main component of financial aid to North American carriers which in total represented a quarter of 2019 annual revenues for the region’s airlines. This is followed by Europe with assistance at 15% of 2019 annual revenues and Asia-Pacific at 10%. But in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America average aid is around 1% of 2019 revenues. However the latter figure does not include any support that may not have been publicly announced.
Mr de Juniac added: “Many governments have stepped up with financial aid packages that provide a bridge over this most difficult situation, including cash to avoid bankruptcies. Where governments have not responded fast enough or with limited funds, we have seen bankruptcies. Examples include Australia, Italy, Thailand, Turkey, and the UK. Connectivity will be important to the recovery. Meaningful financial aid to airlines now makes economic sense. It will ensure that they are ready to provide job-supporting connectivity as economies re-open.”

The Impact of Debt
IATA emphasised that the kind of aid provided by governments will influence the speed and strength of ‘their’ airlines’ recovery and urged administrations still contemplating financial relief to focus on measures that help airlines raise equity financing. Mr de Juniac concluded: “Many airlines are still in desperate need of a financial lifeline. For those governments that have not yet acted, the message is that helping airlines raise equity levels with a focus on grants and subsidies will place them in a stronger position for the recovery.
“A tough future is ahead of us. Containing COVID-19 and surviving the financial shock is just the first hurdle. Post-pandemic control measures will make operations more costly. Fixed costs will have to be spread over fewer travellers and investments will be needed to meet our environmental targets. On top of all that, airlines will need to repay massively increased debts arising from the financial relief.

“After surviving the crisis, recovering to financial health will be the next challenge for many airlines.”