It's no secret that the travel and tourism sector has had a turbulent two years, and has been one of the industries hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since we were first asked to stay home, the impact on economies has been huge.
Even as countries experienced peaks and troughs in cases, aircraft remained grounded across the world and the aviation industry was all but closed for business. In the Middle East, international passenger traffic reduced by 72.9 per cent in 2020, while passenger capacity fell 63.9 per cent. Dubai International Airport for example – one of the world’s busiest air travel hubs – reported passenger numbers of just 25.9 million in 2020, a drop of 70 per cent from nearly 90 million during 2019.
While industry experts recognise that real recovery could take years, there is good news: as the world’s vaccine drive accelerates, so too may aircraft wheels on runways. What’s more, many Gulf countries have been among the most efficient at administrating vaccines, with the UAE and Qatar boasting an 85.2 per cent and 77 per cent full vaccination rate respectively. As a region that seeks to diversify from its previous reliance on oil and gas, confidence in tourism is key – especially with the opening of Expo 2020 Dubai and upcoming 2022 Qatar World Cup.
Pre-pandemic, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region welcomed 6 per cent of the world’s tourists, exceeding 60 million tourists a year, from key locations such as India, Saudi Arabia, the UK and Russia. Positively, recent research suggests that these numbers may recover, and do so at pace.
Having returned to the skies myself, it is evident that it is not long before we move past the pandemic and see passengers get back on board. Compared to 2020, where passenger demand was down by 66 per cent globally – and 72 per cent in the Middle East – our recent Inmarsat Passenger Confidence Tracker showed that 60 per cent of passengers will be happy to travel again by the end of the year.
Passengers from the UAE were found to be among the most confident to fly, with only those from China more likely to have taken a flight since the pandemic hit – 79 per cent versus the UAE’s 75 per cent. Moreover, unlike at the start of the pandemic where planes were perceived as “high-risk” environments, nearly half of those surveyed in the UAE said they considered public toilets to be a higher risk to their health than flights.
But despite the confidence of the passengers themselves, it is clear that travel habits won’t be the same. Globally, more than four in five of those researched say their travel habits will change post-COVID, indicating that the onus is on airlines to ensure safety protocols and services keep pace with customers’ changing requirements.
The passenger experience has never been so important. Over the past 18 months, we have been at home, on our personal devices with unlimited access to technology. Now, passengers want that same access anytime, anywhere.
Technology can play a major role in helping airlines improve confidence, from providing up-to-date information and helping reassure passengers before and during a journey, to minimising their contact with cabin crew and fellow passengers onboard an aircraft.
In the UAE, passengers cited contactless payment (49 per cent) as one of the things that most increased their confidence while flying. Inflight Wi-Fi was deemed the most important factor for air passengers following the pandemic (51 per cent), followed by service experience (48 per cent).
As we look to 2022, the outlook for air travel is promising. The global vaccination drive has played a major role in reinstating global travel, and as this continues, travel restrictions will ease further – from cutting the travel red list to seven countries in the UK to Saudi Arabia lifting travel restrictions to UAE citizens.
We have seen that across our customers, passenger usage rates of inflight connectivity have been at an all-time high. In fact, per passenger, Wi-Fi consumption has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic, with over 25 per cent more Wi-Fi usage per passenger in recent months compared to before the pandemic, and this trend is expected to continue long into the future.
It is clear the world is opening back up. What’s for certain is that we will meet, travel, and see the world again – and it may be sooner than we think.
* The writer is Regional Vice President EMEA, Inmarsat Aviation