Travel is back and summer is right around the corner.
Following years of pandemic-related travel restrictions, most of the world is accessible once again and people are craving holidays.
“We’re seeing a surge in trips to culture capitals, a new wave of interest in wellness retreats, and a spike in demand for outdoor destinations beyond just beaches and mountains,” said Jon Gieselman, president of Expedia in the company’s 2023 Travel Trends Report.
In the UAE, 91 per cent of travellers are planning to get away this summer, according to the latest survey from Skyscanner. Of those holidaymakers, 48 per cent have still to book their trip.
However, some of those travellers might be in for a bit of a rude awakening as airfares continue to soar over summer.
“Airfares are higher than ever, planes are full,” said John Bevan, chief executive at dnata Travel Group.
“The price of air travel continues to prove the most prominent challenge, as airlines grow flight capacity to ensure the volume required meets demand.”
With the worst of the pandemic behind us, increased flight prices are being driven by a perfect storm of other factors, chief among which is global travel demand.
“Since Covid, there has been a consistently high demand for travel, which we are seeing across the network, not just on certain routes,” a spokesperson from Etihad Airways told The National.
“The demand is likely to be a factor of people having realised they missed out on travel during the pandemic and making up for it now. While family and friends quickly realised the importance of seeing each other face to face, it’s also clear that businesses now have a renewed appreciation for the value of gathering at a trade show or an in-person meeting with a client,” added the representative from the national airline of the UAE.
And while that demand remains high, so too will ticket prices.
“Airfare pricing is complex, and there are many factors that determine the cost – from the itinerary to the flexibility of the ticket and the cabin class – however, the key determining factor for the price paid is largely due to demand,” Ayoub El Mamoun, Skyscanner's Travel Expert, told The National.
A shortage of planes and pilots
Even if travel demand does slow down, several other frictions look likely to keep airfares high including thin airline schedules, planes that are not ready to fly and a lack of trained pilots.
“Higher prices are partly due to supply constraints – not all the airlines have brought back all their fleet yet,” Ross Veitch, chief executive and co-founder of Wego, told The National.
“It’s not a quick fix – if you park a plane in the desert for 18 months, it takes a lot of effort to get it ready to fly again. And then there are crew issues. Pilots certified to fly an Airbus jet are now being asked to fly a Boeing 787, which means they’ve got to get in the simulator again, and there are only so many simulators – so changing all of that takes time.”
In the Middle East – the fastest-growing tourism destination in the world, according to travel technology firm RateGain – many airlines have already returned to almost pre-pandemic capacity including Emirates, which is operating at 85 per cent.
But that doesn’t mean airfares automatically reduce. As long as other regions remain down on pre-pandemic capacity, travellers can expect a knock-on impact on flight prices.
“I'm hopeful that by summer, most airlines that fly in and out of the Mena region, will be at – or almost at – 100 per cent back to where they were pre-Covid. But the Asia Pacific areas are still way behind and because it’s a global network, that impacts prices,” said Veitch.
“If someone wants to fly from somewhere in Asia to somewhere in Europe, they’re transiting in the Middle East, and missing capacity has an impact. If they can't find flights with the Asian carrier they might normally fly with, then they’re moving over to another airline – someone like Emirates or another regional airline – and that forces up demand for those tickets.”
Will flight prices ever return to pre-Covid levels?
“I think summer prices might ease a little bit relative to where they were last year, but I'm not sure they're ever coming back to where they were pre-Covid,” said Veitch.
The war in Ukraine is another factor impacting flight prices, with the rising price of oil increasing the cost of jet fuel.
“Airfares are still very strong as there is a huge increase in fuel prices. They are at their peak,” flydubai chief executive Ghaith Al Ghaith told The National during the Arabian Travel Market 2023.
He added that he expected fares to remain high over the summer period.
There are, however, some factors that could ease the situation. As budget airlines add more capacity, and new airlines enter the industry, average airfares could begin to reduce.
“Low-cost airlines, the likes of Wizz Air, will have an impact,” said Veitch.
“And Riyadh Air – it’s going to take them a while to get flying, but it’ll be another large network carrier operating out of the region, which will be good for consumers.”
Wizz Air Abu Dhabi, which launched during the pandemic, continues to expand its network and now operates budget flights to more than 20 destinations from the UAE capital.
Flydubai has also grown its network, offering lower-cost flights to more than 100 destinations, exceeding pre-pandemic levels. Globally, new budget airlines could also impact flight prices with the likes of Iceland’s newcomer Play, and Norse Atlantic Airways which has just opened bookings on direct flights between the UK and the US, where return fares start from $560.
In April this year, aircraft manufacturer Boeing announced it was ramping up the pace on delivery of new aircraft, which came as welcome news for the industry. But enthusiasm was quashed earlier this month when rivals Airbus said that the aircraft supply chain crisis could last well into next year.
And while it's far from good news for the global economy, the looming possibility of a recession might be one factor that impacts airfare prices as travellers could be reluctant to book flights in the face of such an event and a global surge in the cost of living.
“As capacity increases and demand softens, prices will adapt accordingly,” said Etihad’s spokesperson.
Top tips for finding cheaper flights
In the current climate, it’s harder to find good deals on airfares, but that doesn’t mean there are none to be had.
Travellers need to be savvy when it comes to booking flights, and understanding how airlines operate can help holidaymakers find better fares.
“One common practice of airlines is to have fare classes, and as one fare class fills up, they open the next one for purchase. This is one of the reasons why ticket prices fluctuate, and why booking at certain times – for example, at the last minute – may be more expensive as there is usually less supply to meet demand,” explains Skyscanner’s El Mamoun.
“At the same time, last-minute deals can also be found depending on the route and itinerary as airlines launch new routes or look to fill the last seats before departure.”
Being flexible and open to discovering new destinations, plus knowing when to book can also boost travellers’ chances of finding more affordable airfares.
Timing is everything, says Veitch.
“Get organised and book ahead of time – the rule of thumb is that the further ahead you book the better. If you are booking travel that’s six months or more out, book something that's flexible so that if plans change you have options.”
Etihad Airways has the same advice: “We recommend booking early to get the best prices and the best deals.”
Flying on days that are less popular can also come with reduced fares. “Travellers who are flexible and can fly on less popular days of the week can save up to 35 per cent on the cost of their flights this July and August,” said El Mamoum.
Where to travel for cheap flights this summer?
Going against the grain can work in travellers' favour when it comes to saving dirhams.
“It’s good to be countercyclical. If you've got the flexibility to go on holiday outside of school holidays, do it. If you’ve got a family that’s a bit harder, but if you can, then take advantage of it,” said Veitch.
Being creative in deciding where to go is also a good tip. “If you want to go to the same iconic destinations as everybody else at the same time, you’ll pay a premium for the price,” added the chief executive.
That’s something that’s evident in exclusive travel data from Skyscanner shared with The National, which lists several destinations where average fares for flight departures from the UAE in June are currently lower than they were pre-pandemic.
These include Greece, where fares are 24 per cent less this year than last, and the Maldives where fares are a whopping 56 per cent less than pre-Covid prices, likely due to the introduction of budget flights from Wizz Air to the Indian Ocean holiday hotspot.
10 destinations where 2023 fares are lower than 2019 fares
- Austria (29 per cent less)
- Azerbaijan (20 per cent less)
- Bosnia and Herzegovina (51 per cent less)
- Brazil (7 per cent less)
- Cyprus (35 per cent less)
- Georgia (41 per cent less)
- Greece (24 per cent less)
- Iceland (12 per cent less)
- Kuwait (80 per cent less)
- Maldives (56 per cent less)