Airlines will be cautious and their route networks smaller for many years Willie Walsh has said.
The former CEO of IAG which includes Aer Lingus, British Airways and Iberia has taken up a new role as director-general of the international airline trade association IATA. He was due to retire last year when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and stayed on an extra six months to see IAG through the worst.
In an interview with IATA, Mr Walsh said he could not see the route networks from 2019 being replicated and that many routes will become difficult to justify for individual airlines.
"It has been the most challenging and harrowing time in the business," Mr Walsh said.
He also said the debt situation in the airline industry was "staggering", going beyond €547bn, saying it will take a long time to pay off.
"But this industry is resilient. We have seen structural changes before. What we do best is connect people and economies safely. We serve our customers well and what we know for sure is that there is strong pent-up demand for travel. When we can fly, there will be customers to serve. I am optimistic," he said.
However, Mr Walsh said success in the future will still be about offering the customer the right service at the right price. "Aviation is brutally competitive, and it will remain so," he said.
Airlines have been amongst the worst impacted sectors as the global pandemic saw a massive reduction in travel.
Despite the rollout of vaccines since the beginning of the year there is unlikely to be a return to large scale air travel for a number of months.
UK airline Jet2 said yesterday it was cancelling holidays until late June, blaming uncertainty in UK government plans for restarting international travel.
Flight operators had been counting on the UK government proposals published on Friday to allow planning for a summer getaway season, but the industry criticised the announcement for not including a start date for travel or listing which countries would be open for holidaymakers.
Additional reporting Reuters