The Covid-19 pandemic has been one of the biggest challenges the airline industry has faced. As new variants threaten the recovery of the sector, CNN spoke about how the Middle East’s regional carriers are pivoting their strategies and coping with the ‘new normal’.
On the Omicron variant impacting travel in the region, Emirates Airlines President Tim Clark said: “I was actually very concerned about the effect that (new variants) would have particularly on the Emirates inbound loads to Dubai and the UAE in this month and in January, which are very, very strong.
“In my view, these variants are going to keep popping up. I’m one of the people that believes that the variants will dissipate in their effect over time as the global population becomes more immune.”
At the 2021 Dubai Airshow, which is claimed to be the biggest edition since the event began in 1989, CNN met Emirates Group CEO Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who said: “When we are talking about recovery, I think continuing with the programme to continue to ensure that people coming to this place … they will be safe. They will be healthy. We care about them. That’s the most important, and that really has given the confidence for a lot of people to come to Dubai.”
Despite the pandemic setbacks, Sheikh Ahmed is hopeful for Emirates’ future. “I can say going into the second month of the end of the year, we are into profit. So I hope the world will continue. I hope that the worst is over. And now we’re looking forward, ready to start again and reach the number of passenger and revenue that we used to do,” he said.
Istanbul Airport in Turkey, meanwhile, is projected to become the world’s busiest airport when expansion work is completed. CNN met the airport’s CEO Kadri Samsunlu who says international co-operation is key to restarting the travel sector.
“We still lack a bit on the harmonisation of travel requirements. Each country is still imposing their own conditions, which makes travelling difficult. And if travellers don’t know whether there are certainties around travel arrangements, they may consider staying at home or staying in their own country and travel there.”
Samsunlu credits a strong domestic air travel market, Turkey’s fast re-opening to foreign tourists, and close co-ordination with hub carrier Turkish Airlines, with helping the airport get through a tough year. He hopes that new variants will not delay this progress.
“If we panic every time a variant emerges this road is going to be very bumpy. But what I would recommend is basically we have the remedy – the vaccine – let’s promote vaccination. Anything beyond that… let’s not go back to 2020,” Samsunlu said.
As the industry prepares to bounce back, many are looking for more sustainable ways to operate flights. From light-weight cutlery and plant-based water bottles, to engines and route planning systems which optimise take-off and landing, Etihad Airways is exploring many sustainable options.
Etihad CEO Tony Douglas spoke about how the pandemic has accelerated the implementation of these sustainable practices. “I think what we’re going to see is an acceleration of adoption. I think we’ll see a number of people off the back of the pandemic trading up to more modern aircraft types. I do believe we’ll see the availability of sustainable aviation fuels accelerate and as a consequence, a reduction in the cost.”
Etihad has partnered with Boeing to test the latest technologies, including using sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). While Douglas praises the benefits of using SAF, he cautions that there are still drawbacks at this time.
He said: “The availability of it is a massive challenge. It’s also three times more expensive. So even if you can get it, it’s not commercially sustainable. Because it’s not a one or the other conversation. You can’t be sustainable or profitable. You need to be sustainable and profitable.”