Covid may change aviation industry forever
Airlines shift to 'survival mode' as pandemic lingers but there could be silver linings
After 2020 marked the onset and early waves of Covid-19, last year saw the full-scale impact of the pandemic crisis and the aviation industry remained one of its biggest casualties.
Although some airlines were more impervious to the crisis than others, most would agree last year was a huge challenge and 2022 should offer some respite despite the Omicron variant threatening to keep putting a dampener on air travel.
Experts say that while Omicron transmits faster than Delta, there are indications that symptoms may be less severe. The world has also learned to build its defences as the global vaccination rate keeps climbing and Covid-free settings become a norm in many countries.
However, the aviation business -- both the full-service and low-cost segments -- has been among the hardest hit and could take the longest to recover.
In fact, these have been some of the darkest days in the history of the industry, said Jared Lee, vice president of sales for Qatar Airways South East Asia (SEA), Southwest Pacific & Indian Subcontinent (SWP & ISC).
"We saw the demand for business and leisure travel essentially evaporate overnight, as a result of strict and constantly changing entry restrictions imposed around the world," he told the Bangkok Post.
Lee: Saw demand 'evaporate'
Survival of the fittest
Backed into a corner, airlines fought back with everything they had.
"What resulted was a case of survival of the fittest. It has been a constant game of adapting to the latest and ever-changing pandemic situation, and a real test for our business nimbleness in executing strategic business plans.
"Our aviation industry will look quite different once we overcome the Covid-19 pandemic than it did before the virus arrived," he said.
Sharing the sentiment is Ng Chee Keong, chief operating officer of Scoot, a low-cost carrier owned by Singapore Airlines. He said Covid-19 has compelled many airlines to review their operating overheads and pivot towards "survival" mode.
This is essential in the short term where all fat is trimmed, and essentials are somewhat stretched, he said.
"I strongly believe that the pandemic does offer opportunities for carriers to review their operating practices and in some instances, create new infrastructure that leverages on digitisation to provide better value for the customers," the COO added.
In his view, digitisation affords superfluous information flow where decisions can be made expediently and translate into more options for customers to determine the best solutions for their travel plans.
Scoot has jumped on the bandwagon and begun operating cargo charters including storing cargo in aircraft cabins.
Asia will continue to present exciting opportunities when travel fully resumes as the region is home to some of the fastest-growing and emerging markets in the world, Mr Ng said.
Thailand remains an attractive travel destination where great memories and bonds remain very much etched in the minds of travellers. This is perhaps the "pull" that continues to tug at the heartstrings of most people who have visited Thailand, experts say.
The progressive relaxation of international borders presents new opportunities for airlines and travellers alike. Scoot introduced the only low-cost non-stop option between Bangkok and London in October. Last month, it also resumed passenger services to Bangkok, Phuket, Krabi and Chiang Mai.
Meanwhile, the road to recovery depends on each country's travel restrictions, quarantine policy, vaccination rate and Covid-19 caseload, said Qatar's Mr Lee.
The situation remains fluid, as evidenced by the emergence of Omicron and numerous countries at least temporarily tightening their border restrictions and quarantine despite an overarching trend of global reopening.
"Specifically for Thailand, Qatar Airways did not stop operating between Doha and Bangkok. We maintained one or two daily services between Bangkok and Doha, depending on demand, to provide connectivity to Thai passengers. We have flown over 170,000 passengers in and out of Thailand between March 2020 and September 2021," said Mr Lee.
Ng: 'Fat must be trimmed'
Qatar Airways has seen a surge in bookings as people around the world are starting to make travel plans again -- as has another Gulf carrier, Emirates.
Emirates had to suspend its operations in Thailand for a short period due to government restrictions. Nevertheless, it was among the first airlines to resume international travel since the Phuket Sandbox Model commenced on July 2 last year, starting with four weekly flights to the popular island destination.
Emirates said that with the UAE being one of the countries where vaccinated passengers could travel to Thailand from without being quarantined, occupancy on routes from the airline's hub to both Bangkok and Phuket have been doing well.
Prior to the temporary setback with the new Covid variant and quarantine on arrival having been reinstated, Emirates said it recorded an increase in bookings between Thailand and destinations in its network.
"As we restored our capacity across the network in line with travel demand, we have restored our operations to provide daily flights to and from Phuket as well as 14 weekly flights to Bangkok, seven of which are operated with our flagship A380 aircraft to accommodate more passengers," Emirates said.
Jetstar Asia, a low-cost airline based in Singapore, has also seen international travel ramp up as governments across the region take a more practical approach to border requirements as vaccination rates rise.
"Early in 2022 we will look to increase services to popular destinations, launch new routes and hope to introduce more Vaccinated Travel Lane services as borders stabilise, allowing us to restore our extensive Southeast Asian network," a spokesperson for the airline said.
The airline said it will coordinate with tourism bodies, airports and local governments to ensure recovery and growth continues as the world learns to live with the virus as safely as possible.
"There's no doubt we would never want to repeat the last two years, but as an airline we have evolved, adapted and look forward to a bright future," the spokesperson added.
Travel bans obsolete
As airlines were trying to find their feet again, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) asked governments to follow World Health Organization (WHO) advice and immediately rescind travel bans that were introduced in response to the Omicron variant.
"Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods. In addition, they can adversely impact global health efforts during a pandemic by disincentivising countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data," the WHO said.
"All countries should ensure that the measures are regularly reviewed and updated when new evidence becomes available on the epidemiological and clinical characteristics of Omicron or any other variants of concern."
Willie Walsh, IATA's director-general, said the same WHO advice also notes that screening or quarantine procedures "need to be defined following a thorough risk assessment process informed by the local epidemiology in departure and destination countries and by the health system and public health capacities in the countries of departure, transit and arrival."
"All measures should be commensurate with the risk, time-limited and applied with respect to travellers' dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms, as outlined in the International Health Regulations," he added.
"After nearly two years with Covid-19 we know a lot about the virus and the inability of travel restrictions to control its spread. But the discovery of the Omicron variant induced instant amnesia on governments which implemented knee-jerk restrictions in complete contravention of advice from the WHO."
The IATA urges governments to reconsider all Omicron measures, he said. "The goal is to move away from the uncoordinated, evidence-absent, risk-unassessed mess that travellers face," he noted. The IATA has also called on governments to remove all travel barriers, including quarantine and testing, for those fully vaccinated with a WHO-approved vaccine, and to enable quarantine-free travel for non-vaccinated travelers with a negative pre-departure antigen test result.
According to a public opinion poll, 80% of travellers believe vaccinated people should be able to travel freely; 81% believe testing before travel is an acceptable alternative to vaccination; and 73% believe quarantine is not necessary for vaccinated travellers.
Digital solutions to process heath credentials are also being recommended, the IATA said.
Management of travel health credentials (vaccination or testing certificates) should be handled digitally and enable travellers to complete the process in advance so they can arrive at the airport ready-to-travel. This will facilitate automated check-in processes, reducing airport wait-times, the agency added.