Etihad Airways expects an improvement in travel demand in the second half of 2021 as border restrictions are eased and more people are vaccinated, stoking hopes for a summer travel rebound.
There is a “very strong intake” on forward bookings for passenger flights to Seychelles, Moscow and Casablanca that are resuming at the end of March, and for its new route to Tel Aviv that starts on April 6, said senior vice president for global sales and cargo Martin Drew on Sunday.
The airline also pointed to “strong demand” on some routes such as Pakistan and Bangladesh as people travel to visit family and friends.
Drew said pent-up demand is expected to drive a strong rebound as vaccination campaigns become more widespread and travel restrictions are eased.
The briefing comes a year after the UAE suspended most passenger flights on March 23 to curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
The impact of the pandemic on the global aviation industry was catastrophic and dwarfed that of 9/11, Sars and the global financial crisis.
The International Air Transport Association, which represents airlines around the world, has called for quarantines to be replaced by Covid-19 tests and vaccines to enable a safe travel restart.
The organization is touting its Travel Pass health app as one solution.
Etihad plans to test the Travel Pass on its North American routes in April, said Chris Youlten, executive director of operations strategy.
It serves four destinations in the region – Toronto, Chicago, New York and Washington.
The airline has been trialing several digital health apps by various developers on its European and Pakistan routes.
“It is a ‘watch this space’ at the moment. The intention is to make travel easy,” said Youlten.
The apps will not be the reason travel opens up but they will enable it “once governments decide on what regulations are put in place to cross their borders in either direction”, he said.
“It is just one part of a complex puzzle at the reopening that we hope will come in the next few quarters.”
A lack of common global standards on the application or lifting of travel restrictions has complicated the industry’s recovery after the pandemic.
“We anticipate that in the second half of the year things will start to improve and once they do improve, then the need for us to be able to validate and verify through a travel pass is going to be more and more essential,” said Youlten.
Etihad said it does not require passengers to be vaccinated, referring to an industry debate on conditions for international travel.
“I think it will be a very difficult situation for any government to discriminate on the basis of vaccination only because we do know that there will be a portion of society that cannot vaccinate for other medical conditions,” he said.
“It will certainly enable travel but it will not bar those that are not vaccinated from travelling.”
Drew said the air cargo business had been a lifeline for Etihad during the crisis that hit passenger travel badly.
Freight demand outweighed supply as capacity shrunk when passenger aircraft were grounded during the pandemic last year. The growth was driven by demand for personal protective equipment, which has now eased.
However, there has been significant growth in segments such as e-commerce, said Drew.
Huge shipping line backlogs on key trade routes have resulted in higher demand for air freight, he said.
In terms of Etihad’s outlook for cargo this year, the airline plans to replicate the growth it achieved in 2020.
“The demand we witnessed will go way beyond 2021 and well into 2022,” he said.
“Certainly, the outlook for 2021 from a cargo standpoint is going to be equally strong as 2020.”
Cargo demand has helped Etihad to resume some of its passenger routes and rebuild passenger volumes, he said.
The airline converted four Boeing 777-300 passenger aircraft into cargo planes and operates five 777 freighters.
Etihad is also evaluating plans to convert some of its Airbus A330 planes into freight aircraft, although it is more likely to remove the seats from more of its Boeing 777-300ERs, he said.