How Covid-19 changed the skies: Charting the pandemic's effect on travel one year after the UAE first paused flights

Here is how 12 months of flight disruptions, travel restrictions and border closures have impacted the aviation industry

Grounded Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are seen parked at Boeing facilities at Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake, Washington, U.S. November 17, 2020.  REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

By the end of 2019, aviation had entered what some have dubbed a second golden age. Airlines were making a profit, pilots were in strong demand and flying was faster, cheaper and more comfortable than ever before, leading to a record high in passenger numbers.

A total of 4.5 billion people flew on an aircraft in 2019 – equivalent to almost 60 per cent of the world’s population. In the same period, an average of 12.5 million people boarded one of the 128,000 flights operated every day, according to data from the International Air Transport Association (Iata).

In the UAE, the trend was magnified. In November 2019, the 16th iteration of the Dubai Airshow closed with $54.5 billion in orders on the books, including aircraft sales to global airlines such as Russia's Aurora, Air Senegal and Kazakhstan's Air Astana.

On home turf and buoyed by a 21 per cent increase in profits in 2019, as compared to 2018, Emirates placed a $16 billion order for 50 Airbus A350 XWBs and an $8.8 billion order for 30 new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners.

Down the road in Abu Dhabi, Etihad was also gaining strength. The national airline of the UAE cut its losses from $1.95 billion in 2018 to $870 million in 2019, and was enjoying a 2 per cent increase in passenger load factor.

Etihad used the 2019 Dubai Airshow to announce a collaboration with Boeing that involved branding one of its new Boeing 787 Dreamliners as the Greenliner. The project, Etihad said, would allow the airline and its partners to experiment with a range of initiatives that would make flying more environmentally sustainable.

Less than six weeks later, the lights began to dim on this chapter of aviation history, as the industry found itself embroiled in the repercussions of an outbreak of a little-known virus, originating in Wuhan, China.

In an effort to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus via air travel, airports around the world introduced additional screening measures for passengers flying from China. When this failed to halt the spread, countries opted to cancel flights to and from China, in what would be the first in a series of events that would hurtle the industry towards the worst crisis in aviation history.

Grinding to a halt

Exactly 99 days after the 2019 Dubai Airshow commenced, the UAE made the decision to ground its first flights. The General Civil Aviation Authority announced on February 25, 2020 that jets bound for Iran, where the coronavirus was spreading rapidly, would be halted for at least one week.

This FlightRadar24 image shows the impact just one day later, on February 26. Slide the bar across to compare air traffic from the same date, one year prior.

One month later, on March 25, UAE authorities announced that all inbound, outbound and transit passenger flights to and from the country would temporarily halt. The skies above one of the world's busiest international passenger hubs fell silent on March 26. The same scenario played out at Abu Dhabi International Airport.

UAE air traffic: month-by-month in 2020

The impact of Covid-19 on air traffic above the UAE can be easily tracked using flight radar maps.

Live air traffic service FlightRadar24 tracks jets in the air across the world every day of the year. The below data shows air traffic over the Emirates starting in March, when passenger flights to and from the country were first grounded, until the end of the year.

The data was tracked at 2pm, UAE time, on the fourth Tuesday of the month. Click through the slides to see how the skies changed in 2020.

The stark difference in air traffic brought on by the pandemic is clear to see. Skies that were once filled with thousands of flights every day witnessed only a fraction of that activity last year.

Throughout the pandemic, airlines continued to operate cargo flights and repatriation flights, so UAE air space was never entirely closed, but pilots flying during this time reported that the experience was slightly unnerving.

"Sometimes, it can look like a terror movie because you can easily fly for an hour and not see another aircraft. In places like India, where normally it's a very high level of traffic, you can fly for miles and not see another aircraft. That is the reality – we do not have many airplanes flying around," Etihad Airways captain Leonardo Magno told The National in an interview in 2020.

The first glimpses of air traffic recovery were visible in June, when stay-at-home orders began to ease and the UAE reopened airspace to some passenger flights. An even bigger rise in June followed Emirates's decision to restart some of its most popular passenger routes.

The Dubai airline announced on May 21 that it was set to resume passenger services to nine of its most popular destinations, including London, Paris, Madrid, Chicago, Toronto and Sydney.

"London Heathrow is one of our best performing routes and demand [on this route] has been typically strong across every class of travel," a representative for Emirates told The National.

A picture take on September 14, 2017 shows Emirates planes parked at the tarmac at Dubai's International Airport.
 / AFP PHOTO / GIUSEPPE CACACE

The most promising rebound for UAE air travel came in December, which is typically already a busy time for travellers. Emirates confirmed that its peak period for 2020 (post pandemic) in terms of passenger numbers, frequencies, capacity and destinations operating occurred in the last month of the year.

Despite these highlights, the overall pace of the recovery has been slow. Dubai International Airport (DXB), one of the world's busiest hubs, ended the year having welcomed 25.9 million passengers though its terminals, compared to the 86.4 million people that passed through the airport in 2019.

In Abu Dhabi, Etihad reported a 99 per cent drop in passenger numbers in the second quarter of 2020, coinciding with commercial flights being grounded by authorities.

An ongoing 14-day quarantine period for passengers arriving in the capital has kept arrival numbers low. That said, the operation of special repatriation flights and the resumption of a limited network of transfer services via Abu Dhabi in early June helped boost traffic marginally.

The skies in 2021

Between April 1 and September 30 last year, Emirates carried 1.5 million passengers, down 95 per cent from the same period the year before. Since then, the airline has been busy rebuilding its network and is now flying to 90 destinations around the world. That's compared to the 143 cities that it flew to pre-Covid-19.

Etihad, too, is rebuilding. The airline has placed a significant focus on safety and was the first in the world to require 100 per cent of its passengers to produce a negative Covid-19 test report before boarding a flight. The recent introduction of a "Green List" of countries in Abu Dhabi, places where travellers can fly from without needing to quarantine, looks set to help air traffic recovery.

Global impact on air travel

The coronavirus pandemic brought the global aviation industry to a standstill almost overnight. The darkest day for air traffic was April 12, 2020 when there were only 46,294 flights in the air across the world.

The number of scheduled passengers boarded by the global airline industry dropped to only 1.8 billion in 2020. That's a 60 per cent decrease in global air passenger traffic compared to pre-pandemic figures.

While many countries have now eased restrictions and airlines are slowly resuming services, the future of aviation remains uncertain. It is unclear how long travel restrictions will remain in place, whether there will be another wave of the virus to contend with or when passengers will feel confident to travel again.

If there is a glimmer of hope, it comes from the fact that the world needs airlines. Despite the current turbulence, air travel will not disappear.

"I think it will recover, and I think there still will be still a huge demand for aviation and transportation. I think it's such an important part of the world economy," said Alan Joyce, chief executive of Australia's national airline Qantas, during an interview with Eurocontrol in January.

There are brighter days to come for the aviation industry, but at this stage of the global pandemic, the outlook still remains foggy.