The head of Europe’s biggest airline group, Lufthansa, hopes for “some recovery for the summer” despite the current lockdown across Europe.

Lufthansa Group chief executive Carsten Spohr insisted vaccines and testing “will give us some recovery”. But he noted: “It will be years before we go back to the traffic of 2019.”

Speaking on a webinar hosted by European air traffic management organisation Eurocontrol, Spohr said Lufthansa would operate “less than 20% of our capacity” in the first quarter of this year.

But he argued: “Somewhere between the second and third quarters, the vaccines will come into play, testing is becoming more professionalised and this will give us some recovery for the summer period.”

Spohr said Lufthansa and its group carriers, Swiss, Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines and Eurowings would “come out smaller” from the crisis.

He said: “We decided we need to come out smaller. There is a unique opportunity to come out as a leaner company.

“We started the pandemic with 14 group airlines and we come out with 12. We took all four-engine aircraft out. Every fifth staff member has left – that is the sad part but it had to be done.

“We decided early we would only operate flights that make a cash contribution.”

Spohr defended the state aid the group has received from EU governments.

Lufthansa secured a €9 billion support package from the German government, and SWISS, Austrian Airlines and Brussels Airlines secured similar though smaller aid packages from each of their respective governments.

Spohr said: “Did I believe we would go back to 20% government ownership, which we are now? No, but we are at the lower end of government ownership among our competitors.

“We got up to €9 billion. We took just €3 billion. I don’t believe we will need €9 billion.”

He added: “We have to pay the money back. It’s not for free, it’s a loan and there are incentives to pay it back quickly. It becomes quite expensive after a time, [and] we face a long list of conditions and additional burdens.”