The health of the Middle East aviation sector was in focus at Arabian Travel Market 2021 from May 16 to 19, which concluded at the Dubai World Trade Centre. Regional experts were debating the state of the Middle East aviation industry and a timetable for its recovery, particularly after significant announcements recently by Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, relaxing travel, and social restrictions.
The conference session entitled ‘Aviation – the key to rebuilding international travel, restoring confidence, global solutions and building business’, was moderated by TV and radio presenter Phil Blizzard, with guest panellists including, George Michalopoulos, Chief Commercial Officer, Wizz Air; Hussein Dabbas, General Manager Special Projects for MEA region, Embraer; and John Brayford, President, The Jetsets.
Overall, the panel was bullish about the recovery citing pent-up demand, which could initially outstrip the availability of flights, until airlines resume their regular pre-Covid scheduled services and routes, particularly on domestic and regional routes which they agreed would be the first to recover.
“Domestic and regional leisure passenger traffic will recover first. This will be driven by massive pent-up demand, helped by relaxed ‘local’ restrictions and improved consumer confidence,” said Dabbas.
“This trend will ultimately increase demand from airlines for smaller more cost-effective aircraft – a maximum of 120 passengers, on direct routes, with increased frequency of service,” he added.
To illustrate his point, Dabbas pointed to the Air France-KLM pre-pandemic decision to order 30 A220 jets while announcing the retirement of their A380 fleet, in a bid to improve the airline’s fuel efficiency and costs.
“Iata estimates that domestic markets could recover to 96 per cent of pre-crisis levels in the second half of this year, a 48 per cent improvement over 2020 and a return to pre-Covid levels in the third quarter of 2024,” said Dabbas.
Talking about improving consumer confidence, the panel agreed that there had to be some form of global regulation, a collaboration between industry bodies, governments, airports, and airlines, that would be easy to understand and universal.
“As it stands, the quarantine rules and other Covid-19 regulations are confusing, they need simplifying. Governments should concentrate on PCR testing and vaccines. Passengers need a secure source of information covering the flight and the destination,” said Dabbas, “We are a one-world industry.”
Michalopoulos added, “Vaccine passports are the way forward and it is also important that we communicate just how safe onboard air conditioning is. Some people think that recirculated air in planes is not safe, that simply isn’t true. Aircraft have filtering systems which are as efficient as hospital ICUs.”
Looking to the future, Brayford an industry stalwart whose company The Jetsets is pioneering fractional ownership in private business jets, said that airlines would need a clear plan moving forward.
“A niche today might become a mainstream trend tomorrow, so no opportunity should be overlooked, the way in which some airlines have supplemented reduced passenger numbers with cargo is a good example. Flexibility and managing costs will also be key.”
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