Airlines are demanding urgent state aid amid the meltdown in air traffic due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.

Most leisure flights operating this week were to repatriate passengers as one country after another declared travel bans or bars on overseas visitors and the EC suspended slot rules until June 30 to enable airlines to ground aircraft immediately.

British Airways owner IAG announced plans on Monday to cut capacity by 75% or more through April and May.

The group will defer spending, offer voluntary leave, suspend employment contracts and reduce work hours.

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Chief executive Willie Walsh warned: “We expect demand to remain weak until well into the summer.” Walsh will delay standing down as planned to ensure management stability “in the near term”.

Virgin Atlantic unveiled “drastic measures to ensure cash is preserved and the future of the airline safeguarded”, including a near 80% reduction in flights by March 26 and 85% “at points in April”.

The carrier also axed Heathrow–Newark services “permanently” and asked staff “to take eight weeks unpaid leave over the next three months, with the cost spread over six months”.

Virgin said unions had agreed to the move.

The airline appealed to the government to make “emergency credit facilities” of up to £7.5 billion available “to prevent credit card processors withholding payments”.

Norwegian Air announced it would cancel 85% of flights and lay-off 7,300 staff, 90% of its workforce, saying: “Most of our planes will be grounded.” All UK long-haul flights will cease from March 21.

Chief executive Jacob Schram noted: “The authorities of Norway have communicated they will implement all necessary measures to protect aviation in Norway.”

EasyJet and Ryanair are also grounding fleets. EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren warned: “Co-ordinated government backing will be required to ensure the industry survives.”

Ryanair said it expects to cut capacity by up to 80% for April and May “and a full grounding can’t be ruled out”.

Lufthansa-owned Austrian Airlines announced the suspension of all flights from March 19, while the Lufthansa Group moved from a 50% cut in capacity to 90% on long-haul routes and 80% on short haul.

Air France-KLM unveiled capacity reductions of “between 70% and 90%, currently scheduled to last two months”, and welcomed statements by the French and Dutch governments that they are “studying all possible means to support the group”.

Major US airlines were in talks with the government seeking up to $50 billion in aid.

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, warned: “The situation is now truly critical. COVID-19 risks a lasting and irreversible effect on the aviation industry.”