A significant shift in travel behaviour is underway, which is likely to reshape air travel for the long-term, industry analysts feel, even as surveys suggested an increasing number of travellers expressing a desire to travel in the near future.
A new global airline survey commissioned by Inmarsat said nine out of ten residents and citizens surveyed from the UAE will change their flying habits and routines even after the Covid-19 pandemic is over.
Neale Faulkner, Inmarsat Aviation’s Regional Vice President for the Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA), said: "The findings from our ‘Passenger Confidence Tracker’ suggest a significant shift in travel behaviour is underway, which is likely to reshape air travel for the long-term.
"While UAE passengers are eager to return to travelling, the findings reveal their concerns around points of engagement and the inflight experience. This shows a clear opportunity for airlines to provide new digital services — from medical support to pre-ordered catering and contactless payment during the flight — to boost passenger confidence, while making sure health and safety needs can be fully met."
The study is the largest global survey of air passengers since the coronavirus crisis began. It reflects the views and attitudes of 9,500 respondents from 12 countries across the world, including more than 500 UAE-based passengers, about the future of flying.
Meanwhile, according to new research conducted by Hilton in the UAE and the market research company YouGov, UAE residents are already gearing up for a busy year of travel in 2021.
More than half of survey respondents (51 per cent), which included UAE Nationals, said they are planning three or more holidays next year if global travel advice allows, with the main reasons being missed holidays due to the pandemic and the desire to revisit treasured destinations with their families.
77 per cent of UAE residents and citizens cited in the survey that a toilet queuing booking app would improve their confidence during the flight
The Inmarsat survey findings suggest that in 2020, UAE flyers are mostly concerned with inflight touchpoints. Being served an inflight meal or visiting the aircraft toilet appear to be the most uncomfortable moments of the journey for UAE travellers at this time. For instance, 77 per cent of UAE residents and citizens cited in the survey that a toilet queuing booking app would improve their confidence during the flight.
In contrast, UAE citizens and residents are comfortable moving around the airport terminal, at the boarding gate, and while boarding – ranking third highest globally when it comes to comes to confidence in the passenger experience. They also expressed more confidence in being around other passengers when compared to the global response.
After months of fast-changing travel restrictions, UAE passengers surveyed are now more concerned about having to quarantine than the risk of catching the virus on the plane or while abroad. Passengers also cited concerns over unpredictable border closures whilst travelling, which might leave them unable to return to the UAE. This indicates that passengers are less concerned about the risk of flying but more so about their experience when abroad.
Other factors such as trust in airlines is also now front of mind for UAE travellers. Over a quarter of those surveyed said they would fly only with airlines they trust. Over half of total passengers (52 per cent) say that reputation is now a more significant factor when choosing an airline than it was pre-pandemic.
The Hilton – YouGov research said nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) of respondents said the pandemic has changed their priorities for leisure travel, with more than a third (34 per cent) now looking for experiences that focus on wellness. Next came in holidays that provide opportunities for nature exploration and adventure (16 per cent), followed by resort-type experiences (15 per cent).
Another interesting trend reflected through the results was that nearly all Emirati respondents (90 per cent) said they posted less on social media whilst travelling this summer. In fact, nearly two-thirds (61 per cent) of all survey takers agreed, the main reason being that they wanted to spend more time making travel memories with family and friends instead of spending time on social platforms.
While global experts argue that travel and tourism recovery to pre Covid-19 times may take anything between three to five years in the best case scenario, everyone agrees that keeping our eyes open to the constantly evolving consumer behaviour and requirements is crucial to the path of recovery.
International Air Transport Association (IATA) has announced that full-year 2020 passenger numbers in the Middle East (to/from/within) are forecast to reach only 30 per cent of 2019 levels, down significantly from the 45 per cent that was projected in July. In absolute numbers, the Middle East is expected to see 60 million travellers in 2020 compared to the 203 million in 2019.
Forward bookings for air travel in the fourth quarter show a much slower recovery than had been expected previously.
"The slower than anticipated return to the skies for travellers in the Middle East is more bad news for the region’s aviation industry. A few months ago, we thought that a fall in passenger numbers to 45 per cent of 2019 levels was as bad as it could get," said Muhammad Albakri, IATA’s Regional Vice President for Africa and the Middle East.
"But the second wave, combined with continuing travel restrictions and quarantines, will result in passenger numbers in the region being less than a third of what we had in 2019. This heightens the urgency for governments to adopt systematic Covid-19 testing to restart travel and curb the economic devastation that is being caused because people cannot travel."
In 2021, demand in the Middle East is expected to strengthen to 45 per cent of 2019 levels to reach 90 million travellers to/from/within the region, said IATA, adding that a full return to 2019 levels is not expected until late 2024.
In line with this prediction, a Euromonitor International report called Accelerating Travel Innovations after Coronavirus, says that global tourism, not just the Middle East, will take at least three to five years to recover from Covid-19.
Euromonitor also says that, provided the pandemic is contained within a year and demand begins to rebound in 2021, it expect airlines to take a minimum of four years to recover, while lodging and intermediaries will take even longer but players are finding innovative ways to survive the impact of coronavirus. Business and Mice travel are set to pick up faster, with a lag for leisure, whilst the outlook for domestic tourism looks fragile, taking several years to return, says the report. Although domestic visitors offer lower spend per trip, destinations turned inwards to their domestic tourism markets once restrictions were lifted.
Lodging, intermediaries and transport players are also expected to face a long haul taking five to seven years to return to previous sales levels after mass closures and cancellations.
The outlook for inbound tourism spending is bleak, with sharp drops of -70 per cent for the UAE. It is even worse for Saudi Arabia, which could see -80 per cent less receipts following curbs on religious tourism with Covid-19 restrictions to holy sites eased in October, allowing a maximum of 6,000 pilgrims to the Grand Mosque in Makkah, says the Euromonitor report.
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