The head of the world’s busiest international air hub is confident that passengers will return to the skies in droves once they believe it’s safe. He’s just not sure when that will occur.
Activity has slowed to a trickle at Dubai International airport, which handled some 86.4 million passengers last year. Dubai Airports CEO Paul Griffiths said he expects a hockey stick-like resumption in traffic driven by pent-up demand, but only after there’s a lasting solution to the coronavirus pandemic that’s hammered air travel across the globe.
“Until there is the sort of proven level of confidence medically that people can safely travel without fear of contracting or spreading the virus, unfortunately the situation we find ourselves in will likely continue for some time,” Griffiths said in an interview with Bloomberg. “Gradually we’ll start to see some confidence build,” he said, starting with countries that have gotten the spread of the virus under control.
In the meantime, Dubai International will have to make do running at about 30% of capacity, Griffiths said, even as long-distance heavyweight Emirates prepares to resume travel to nine destinations on May 21. The airport is implementing precautions like disinfection and social distancing, while looking for reliable, quick and easily administered coronavirus testing to help screen passengers, he said.
The travel industry is reeling after governments around the world blocked non-essential arrivals to reduce Covid-19 infections. Going forward, mandated quarantine periods and social-distancing measures will deter many travellers and keep airports operating at reduced capacity until a vaccine or other treatments are available, Griffiths said.
It could take as long as two years before demand returns to pre-Covid-19 levels, he estimated. Others take an even gloomier view. The International Air Transport Association, a trade group, doesn’t see travel globally recovering to last year’s levels until 2023 at the earliest.
The UK aims to impose a 14-day quarantine on travellers arriving by air from the end of May, while Iceland plans to test all airline passengers arriving at Keflavik Airport for coronavirus by June 15. Those who test negative will be spared a mandatory two-week period of isolation.
Since the virus hit, Dubai Airports has closed two terminals and three concourses, and nearly halved its workforce by ending and suspending service contracts with companies providing around 2,500 people.
The airport operator, which is owned by Dubai’s government but run on a commercial basis, isn’t likely to require state help or additional funds, the CEO said.
“We’re still trying to find that sweet spot between cost control and still being able to function and be ready for the recovery,” Griffiths said. “We’ve sized our infrastructure according to the operation that we have both now and what we foresee in the near future. What we are doing is putting plans in place to ensure we can recall our infrastructure.”
Currently, Emirates is flying through terminal 3 and half of concourse B, while budget carrier FlyDubai and foreign airlines are using terminal 2. As operations ramp up, some foreign carriers will be moved to terminal 3 “until we get to a point of volume and demand where that will justify opening more of the terminal capacity,” Griffiths said.
So far, 52,000 people have left Dubai on repatriation flights to India, the UK, the Netherlands, Iraq and the Philippines, he said. Meanwhile, cargo flights are booming, with around 700 a week providing a lifeline for the city.
Dubai, which turned itself into a global air travel hub connecting 260 cities, is likely to emerge stronger, Griffiths said.
“If demand for air travel is lower in the future for a period of time” there will be fewer sustainable point-to-point routes, he said.
The beauty of the hub model, he said, is the ability to sustain routes to cities where there isn’t enough demand for direct flights.