Iata chief hopeful about US-UK travel resuming within weeks

Forward bookings for domestic travel in June are 'very strong' while international bookings are rising from a low base

Willie Walsh, Director General , IATA
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The International Air Transport Association (Iata)'s chief said he is "optimistic but cautious" about the outlook for air travel demand in the second half of 2021 amid successful Covid-19 vaccine roll-outs and expects travel between the US and UK to resume within weeks.

There is evidence of airlines expanding their flight schedules as they witness a rise in passenger travel demand, Willie Walsh, director-general of Iata, said on Wednesday during an online press event.

"I think we have to be optimistic that will see a relaxation in relation to transatlantic flying during the coming weeks," Mr Walsh said during the two-day Iata Global Media Days event.

Global airlines have been urging governments to lift restrictions for transatlantic travel between the US and the UK, given both countries' progress with Covid-19 vaccinations, as the lucrative route would be a major uplift for pandemic-hit operators.

In May, total demand for passenger air travel globally remained weak, down 62.7 per cent compared to May 2019, according to Iata's monthly report. That was a gain over the 65.2 per cent decline recorded in April 2021 versus April 2019.

As airlines enter the northern hemisphere's summer travel season, forward bookings for domestic travel in June remained "very strong", Ezgi Gulbas, Iata's senior economist said in a presentation. Forward bookings for international travel continued to lag behind domestic trips but increased in June from a very low base after 15 months of stability.

"This makes us optimistic about pent-up demand. Once travel restrictions are lifted we think that we could see improvements in the pace of recovery on the international side as well," Ms Gulbas said.

Reasons for caution about a demand recovery include the rise of Covid-19 virus variants that could delay the reopening of some markets, growth in the share of variants in total cases, and an increase in consumers searching the Internet not only for flight bookings but for information on Covid variants, she said.

"Travel demand is very fragile," Ms Gulbas said.

The airline body voiced frustrations with governments around the world that fail to disclose to the industry in a transparent and timely way their plans to reopen borders for international travel, Mr Walsh said, noting that early notice helps airlines to match their capacity with anticipated demand. There is also little co-ordination at the government level on Covid-19 testing requirements and approaches to digital health certificates, leading to confusion among consumers, he added.

Mr Walsh urged governments to base their decisions on border reopenings based on scientific and medical data as the current risk environment is markedly different from that of 15 months ago when the virus began to spread globally.

Data shows that 94 per cent of travellers who took PCR tests upon their return showed no evidence of a Covid infection, showing an "extremely low" level of risk of re-opening borders when there are sensible measures in place such as testing or when travellers are fully vaccinated, Mr Walsh said.

An Iata survey of passengers, 57 per cent of whom had travelled by plane since June 1, were positive about the safety measures taken during travel but saw barriers.

Of these, 70 per cent said it was a challenge to understand what rules applied to their trip, 67 per cent said it was a hassle to arrange the required Covid test, 61 per cent said the cost of testing was high enough to deter future travel and 60 per cent said they would not travel again until restrictions were lifted, Iata said in its presentation.

Asked how long they would wait to travel once the pandemic was contained, two-thirds of the respondents said they are planning an early return to travel, the survey showed. However, 85 per cent of respondents said they would not travel if there's a chance they might be quarantined at their destination.

While 85 per cent of those surveyed said Covid-19 will not disappear so they need to manage its risks while living and traveling as normal, 63 per cent said they are frustrated by Covid-19 travel restrictions.

Consumers are comfortable with flying but are frustrated with the measures and the high cost of testing, Mr Walsh said, noting that strong demand is suppressed by restrictions that are either unnecessary or can be significantly reduced in many cases.

"What we're seeing is a shift in the consumer attitudes over time and I think that's going to accelerate now, as people become more frustrated at the pace at which governments are moving," he said.

With travel showing signs of recovery, the importance of digitalisation in the travel process is increasingly important, Nick Careen, senior vice president of operations, safety and security at Iata, said.

Travel times through airports could increase in future to 5.5 hours, up from 1.5 hours prior to the pandemic, which is unsustainable and will deter travel, he said.

Iata also criticised attempts by those in the aviation supply chain to increase charges in order to recoup the losses they made during the pandemic, adding a burden on cash-poor airlines and increasing ticket fares for consumers.

Updated: July 07, 2021, 5:25 PM