FHTA, 17 September 2020
Alice Springs in the heart of Australia’s “red centre” is becoming famous for another reason now. The dry climate and low humidity have made it an ideal location for the many aircraft needing to be “parked” to wait out the coronavirus pandemic. With Singapore Airlines recently adding 4 of its A380’s to the many Boeing MAX 8’s there since last year, the estimated $5billion worth of aircraft from around the world, wait in the arid, preserving air for when demand for air travel will take off again.
It is difficult for many to appreciate just how far-reaching the implications of the pandemic is on air travel with government restrictions continuing to decimate passenger demand and force potential travellers to cancel or reschedule trips for the foreseeable future.
Few industries are scrambling to adapt quite like the travel industry, which relies on the regular, safe, and unencumbered movement of people for business and pleasure. In many countries, borders remain closed, cities are still locking down every time infections appear to be getting out of hand, making it especially hard to anticipate how people will move around in the future.
According to the latest data, air travel is down 95%, at least half the world’s aircraft are grounded, famously busy international airports have had no passengers pass through their doors, and worldwide, airlines are estimated to be losing US1.6billion a day.
But it’s not all bad news apparently, with the travel experts predicting all sorts of new trends, industry pundits weighing in with their own theories and no doubt Governments around the world struggling to cope with the economic, medical and political fallouts, simply wanting it all to be over. We all do. Apart from the standard cargo runs that never really stopped, several European airlines have begun commercial operations and although passenger numbers have predictably plummeted, global air traffic volume has seen a steady climb to about 50 per cent of what it was last year.
Flight tracker FlightAware has indicated that in 2019, there was an average of 104,132 flights in a day around the world. As of last month, that daily flight’s figure is currently at 54,308 and that number is growing.
As consumer confidence slowly rebuilds to pre-COVID levels, the race for the vaccine speeds up with pressure building around the belief that most travellers will only truly feel comfortable if there is a vaccine available.
Experts have said that it could be years before such a vaccine is found and circulated globally so, in the interim, the world is having to plan to live with the virus sustainably.
International Airline Group, the parent company of British Airways and Aer Lingus, forecasts that the industry will take a few years to fully recover and their CEO Willie Walsh thinks it will be closer to 2023 which he says is a reasonable forecast while admitting that “this is unlike anything we’ve seen before”.
Travel writers have pitched in with trends supporting staycations (domestic tourism) where travelling without a passport will be preferred over travelling with a passport. There are also forecasts predicting a yearning for open spaces, support for environmental initiatives and all things nature based on a world tired of lockdowns and restrictions.
And where older generations might be wary of immediate travel, there are those that believe millennial travellers will be first to test the new travel requirements.
There is consensus on a few areas though for how things will change. These include that a growing number of countries will promote “travel bubbles” and “corona corridors” as first steps to jumpstart air travel and tourism. These measures involve agreements with neighbouring regions that allow for travel across borders for non-essential trips without quarantining upon arrival. Fiji is looking into these as well, or versions thereof.
Most agree that the vast majority of travellers will need to feel confident the destinations they are travelling to are safe and the companies taking care of them are trustworthy and meet international safety standards. Along with effective contact tracing platforms and reduced or contactless service and touchpoints, crowds and crowded areas will be avoided or minimized as unfortunately for cruise liners, travellers will continue to be wary of travel in confined spaces.
Many also agree that the 14-day quarantine requirements will be an issue for travellers, with airlines around the world monitoring the situation with a magnifying glass and admitting an addiction-like fascination with the numbers of cases every day and wondering when the flow-on effects will be felt by other industries.
This is true even for us in Fiji. While the tourism hot spots like Nadi, the Coral Coast and even further North are reeling from the lack of tourism revenue, most of the other cities and towns have not really felt the economic brunt of the global recession.
While this is being mitigated with FNPF access and Government’s assistance as announced in the National Budget 2020/2021, how long can this assistance last and is it sustainable in the long term as we settle in to wait out the rest of the year?
Our own Fiji Airways continues to prepare for a revised network plan, which will be revealed when the easing of border restrictions is announced. They are also progressing with the implementation of their Travel Ready program, that details measures to safeguard the health and medical safety of their customers and staff when international flying resumes.
Despite the many expert predictions, some things are worth keeping in mind.
Firstly, that seeing as this is our first ever pandemic, there are no actual precedents so no one is a real expert which means we might as well be positive, plan our comeback well and hope for the best.
Secondly, tourism needs a national airline to be strong and ready to get those planes out of mothballs or those arid deserts at the first sign of borders lifting, bubbles agreed to and bookings confirmed. The downside of not having a national airline is that we would have to rely on an international airline seeing the merit of scheduling flights to Fiji that will not be based on Fiji’s economic benefit taking precedent. Fiji would be a stopover and not the hub for the Pacific it currently is. Our imports and exports would be slower, impacting other industries that rely on accessibility to international markets, same-day deliveries as well as lucrative commerce and trade partnerships.
So, let us all get behind our national airline with the same national pride we had when those planes were flying in the thousands of visitors, friends and families because we will need them to do that again very soon. And our way, the Fijian way; has always been to offer a hand when one is down, not kick him.
The tourism industry is down but definitely not out. Not by any means. It is hurting badly but still extremely busy consulting, discussing and planning its way out of this. Our unemployed staff need understanding and support. The thousands of businesses and supply chains and SME’s and communities that tourism has supported for decades will not disappear. They too need understanding and support.
Fiji needs tourism. And right now, every tourism worker, tourism business and supplier that set up their business because of tourism, needs Fiji’s support. Because Fiji needs tourism.
By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 17 September 2020)