Emirates is to close down its entire passenger operation, blaming the closure of airspace and borders worldwide.
The giant Dubai-based airline, by far the biggest carrier to announce the cessation of activities, will end flights by Wednesday due to the coronavirus crisis.
Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the chairman and chief executive of Emirates Group, said: “The world has literally gone into quarantine due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
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“This is an unprecedented crisis situation in terms of breadth and scale: geographically, as well as from a health, social, and economic standpoint.
“As a global network airline, we find ourselves in a situation where we cannot viably operate passenger services until countries re-open their borders, and travel confidence returns.
“We continue to watch the situation closely, and as soon as things allow, we will reinstate our services.
By the industry measure of passenger kilometres, Emirates is the fourth-largest airline in the world, behind the big three US carriers – American, Delta and United.
Since its foundation in 1985, Emirates has built the strongest airline hub in the world. Each day more than 160,000 flew to or from Dubai’s main airport.
But as progressively more countries have introduced flight bans, the airline’s network has been severely disrupted. Passenger numbers have also been hit by the suspension of visas on arrivals.
When Emirates starts flying passengers again, the airline’s scale and operations are likely to be far smaller.
The CEO said: “Emirates remains committed to serving its markets and looks forward to resuming a normal flight schedule as soon as that is permitted by the relevant authorities.”
The carrier is the main user of Airbus A380 “SuperJumbo” aircraft – but its entire fleet of 115 of the double-deck planes could be grounded, with operations switching to its 144 Boeing 777 jets.
Emirates flew almost 60 million people in 2019, many of them to and from the UK.
It linked Gatwick, Heathrow, Stansted, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow with Dubai, for onward connections to Africa, Asia and Australasia, but it appears unlikely the route network will be restored in full.
The airline has warned of “a prolonged period of reduced flight schedules, so that we are adequately prepared for the return to normality”.
The Emirates Group is financially strong and could survive a shutdown lasting several months.
While jobs have been protected, staff have been asked to take a pay cut of up to 50 per cent – with top executives giving up their basic salaries.