Flybe won’t be the last business to be downed by the coronavirus | Josie Cox

As the infection and death toll from coronavirus continues to creep higher, sending ripples of panic through communities and financial markets, the first high-profile corporate casualties are starting to emerge.

Flybe, Europe’s largest independent regional airline, collapsed into administration this week, putting more than 2,000 jobs at risk immediately and imperilling the future of a host of regional airports and local economies. It will take months – even years – to gauge the full extent of the fallout.

In truth, it wasn’t just coronavirus that brought Flybe down – but a plunge in travel demand in reaction to the outbreak was the final gust of wind that flattened a precariously balanced house of cards.

Intense competition, debilitating taxes and a fares war with regional rival Loganair bruised Flybe even before a massive Brexit-induced slump in the pound dealt a body blow. In January the government extended a lifeline to the beleaguered carrier, but against the backdrop of Covid-19 that package became untenable.

Airlines in general have endured severe turbulence in recent years. Thomas Cook, the world’s oldest travel firm, collapsed in September, triggering the largest peacetime repatriation effort in British history. Now the International Air Transport Association estimates the potential financial cost of coronavirus for airlines to amount to between $63bn and $113bn this year. Last month it had pinned that figure at just $29bn. British Airways, easyJet, Virgin Atlantic, Lufthansa and Norwegian Air are just some of those that have already warned about the financial impact of coronavirus.

Hotel chains, cafes and restaurants are the next obvious corporate victims. Huge events and conferences, such as the Geneva Motor Show and Basel watch fair, have already been shelved. Facebook’s massive developers’ conference due to take place in May in San Jose, California, is off, too. InterContinental Hotels, which owns Holiday Inn, has been forced to close 170 of its 470 hotels in the critical Chinese market. As of Friday morning, shares in the company had lost a fifth of their value over the last month.

A man on the site of the Geneva Motor Show, which has now been cancelled due to fears about the coronavirus.

A man on the site of the Geneva Motor Show, which has now been cancelled due to fears about the coronavirus. Photograph: Richard Juilliart/AFP via Getty Images

A business rule of thumb dictates that when times get tough, advertising budgets are often first on the chopping block. The broadcaster ITV, which gets a big chunk of ad revenue from travel companies, cautioned this week that this could fall by about 10% next month.The editor of a travel publication told me this week that prospects were grim: “The last thing people want to think about now is getting on a plane,” she said. “And advertisers know that trying to convince them otherwise is useless.”

But it’s the businesses not grabbing the headlines that might end up proving the most tragic of victims: smaller hotels and hospitality firms, family-run groups with a handful of staff and little slack in the system.Small and medium-sized businesses account for about three fifths of employment and around half of turnover in the UK private sector – and make up 99.9% of the whole business population by number of businesses. They are the backbone of Britain. Flybe’s demise is the tip of the iceberg, but what’s happening below the surface and away from the limelight of the mainstream media could well be devastating.

Global stock market indices have suffered their worst drops since the 2008 financial crisis over the last fortnight. What’s also important to remember, though, is that as far as markets are concerned, the higher you’ve climbed, the further you can fall. Late last year, global stock indices were hitting record highs. So while the equity tumble looks extremely dramatic, it’s also likely to be symptomatic of an overvalued market. When overvaluation occurs, many investors will use any excuse to sell.

So what happens next? Will the Bank of England cut interest rates? The outgoing governor, Mark Carney, this week implied that it’s certainly an option. And – after years of speculating about the extent of the financial impact of Brexit – will it actually be coronavirus that tips us over the precipice and into a recession? The next few weeks will tell.

Ever since the beginning of trade, economies have moved in cycles, pushed and pulled by a rotating array of geopolitical, commercial, social and cultural forces. Occasionally we get what statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb termed “black swans”: rare and unpredictable events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations. Even though some sort of pandemic was always going to happen eventually, to my mind the precise circumstances surrounding coronavirus make it such a beast, but in history we’ve overcome worse. This won’t spell the end of humanity and it won’t knock the UK economy out cold. Companies may be battered, bruised or – in Flybe’s case – broken, but for the majority this, too, will pass.

What perhaps won’t pass as easily, is if, in an effort to keep the shop running, a business develops a bad reputation. In an era of leaders parading governance strategies that put profit and purpose on par, this is their opportunity to prove what they’re really made of: honour employees, safeguard their rights, consider their needs and respect their expectations. When any crisis strikes, allies are absolutely key to survival.

Josie Cox is a journalist and broadcaster specialising in business, finance and gender equality


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