Restarting the throttle of international travel

Qatar Airway's vice president for South-east Asia, Jared Lee, lays out the roadmap for airlines to restart operations in a sustainable manner, including putting in place safety protocols, optimising fleets by switching to smaller jets, and offering flexible booking policies

Since 2013, air passenger volumes had risen steadily every year, according to figures from the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Everything was looking rosy for the travel industry even in Asia-Pacific, where airlines’ full-year traffic increased 4.5 per cent in 2019. Data aggregator Statista valued the global aviation industry at US$828 billion in the same year and it was projected to be around US$850 billion in 2020. Then came 2020, with the entire travel industry going into a standstill as the coronavirus pandemic hit, crippling the world economy in a way nobody could have imagined.

With countries imposing entry restrictions to limit the spread of Covid-19, global travel ground to a halt in the first half of 2020. Early pandemic period saw stranded travellers and overseas nationals desperate to be repatriated home; and for many, Qatar Airways was their only lifeline to fly home as we were one of the very few airlines that remained in operation throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

While most airlines stopped flying, Qatar Airways was still operating to over 30 global destinations at the peak of the pandemic with the mission to bring people home safely. Since February, we have helped close to two million people get home to their loved ones, working closely with government and embassies worldwide to organise over 300 chartered repatriation flights. Our flights clocked over 1.3 billion revenue passenger kilometers in April. Data from IATA indicates that this accounted for 17.8 per cent of the market that month, triple that of the next placed airline.

As the world is now slowly recovering from Covid-19, travel may no longer be restricted to those seeking passage home, with countries cautiously opening up and setting up travel bubbles with other nations.

After months of isolation, people will long to travel again, experience the world, and reunite with friends and family, while business travel will soon resume too. Here are some ways the aviation industry is restarting the throttle of international travel.

Safeguard health
Even when demand picks up, travel will not be like before – not until there is a viable Covid-19 treatment or vaccine. More than ever, health concerns are top of mind. Travellers need assurance that service providers have their well-being in mind. Having been the airline that operated throughout the pandemic period, Qatar Airways is now well-poised and experienced in providing the best hygiene practices and customer experience.

Qatar Airways first introduced PPE suits for our cabin crew back in May 2020. What was meant as a short-term solution has become a mainstay of our health and safety measures onboard. We have also recently introduced the hygiene kit which includes face shields for adults and kids, face mask and sanitiser for all passengers.

Health concerns also go beyond air travel. From the moment they leave home till when they reach their accommodation, and even while touring the destination, travellers want to feel safe. Collaboration across the travel ecosystem could address this by creating a door-to-door passage serviced by trusted players. Such a move boosts the travel industry in general – we can all afford more allies in these trying times.

Sustainable operation with fleet optimisation
Agile airlines are also quick to switch to smaller aircraft to keep the operational cost lower from the dwindling passenger traffic. Once the reigning king in the air with the biggest passenger capacity, many Airbus A380 aircraft worldwide have been grounded indefinitely.

Operating the gargantuan A380 involves significantly higher costs with higher volume of jet fuel needed as well as more cabin crew. With the drastic drop in travel demand, operating larger aircraft types would be detrimental to profit margins. Qatar Airways has since grounded all its 10 A380s, switching mainly to its fleet of 49 Airbus A350 and 30 Boeing B787 Dreamliners.

With the current market condition, profitability and fuel efficiency are even more paramount as airlines strive to recover from the impact of Covid-19. Switching to newer and more fuel efficient aircraft types with smaller capacity such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 Dreamliner would not only reduce operating cost, but also greatly benefit the environment.

Benchmark figures identified that Qatar Airways’ fleet of A350 aircraft consumed 20 tonnes of CO2 less per block hour on certain routes, as compared to the A380. Perhaps with more airlines looking towards a more sustainable operation, the positive environmental impact could be the silver lining to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Flexible, customer-centric booking conditions
Covid-19 has created an unprecedented crisis for the aviation industry with global travel coming to a halt since earlier this year. Airlines globally are under immense financial duress, and many smaller airlines have unfortunately ceased operation permanently after caving into financial pressures.

As countries are gradually coming out of lockdown and travel gradually restarting, airlines are also ramping up to push out travel promotions. With the global economy in a slump and travellers becoming even more price-sensitive, broad-scale discounting might look like a good antidote to stimulate travel and boost ticket sales. However, it is crucial that airlines consider the long-term sustainability and financial viability of such strategy.

Instead, other means of adding value may be more viable, such as offering flexible booking policies, considering the fluidity of the current situation.

Qatar Airways was one of the first airlines to respond to the crisis by offering its customers greater flexibility on bookings. In early March, we already offered flexibility for passengers to change their dates or exchange their ticket for a travel voucher + 10 per cent of the ticket value. As the crisis has prolonged, it has altered the dates by which this offer expires.

To further adapt to the flexibility needed in the ever-changing pandemic climate, Qatar Airways has also recently announced that we will allow unlimited date changes, where passengers can change their destination as often as they need, if it is within 5,000 miles of the original one. The airline will not charge any fare differences for travel completed before December 31, 2020. Also, all tickets booked for travel up to December 31, 2020 will be valid for two years from the date of issuance.

In addition, Qatar Airways’ passengers can opt to swap their ticket for “Qmiles” to use however they like, or exchange it for a travel voucher with 10 per cent additional value, also valid for two years. Further options include refunding tickets to the original form of payment, or in the form of a travel voucher, if the flights get cancelled.

Therefore, instead of going in the unsustainable path of only price reductions, airlines should consider policies that enable customers to travel with confidence. Astute fleet deployment and flexible, customer-centric policies would be the way for airlines to contribute to rebuilding the travel industry.

As entry restrictions around the world begin to ease, travel will steadily return. Many analysts have estimated it will take three to four years for international travel to return to the same level as 2019, but till then, the aviation industry can do what it does best – inspire and encourage travel. After all, the human curiosity about the world we live in is insatiable. Let’s champion their return to the world.

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