US, Europe, Middle East: Airport footfall, passenger traffic bounce back at travel hubs


The roar of jet engines is building in the run-up to the Fifa World Cup 2022 in Doha, with Qatar’s Hamad International Airport (HIA) readying itself to welcome over 1.5 million football-crazy fans when the tournament kicks off in November.

In anticipation of the flood of tourists to Qatar, the airport – ranked the world’s best last year by Skytrax – has been quietly pursuing an expansion plan to boost capacity to 58 million passengers by the end of this year.

Soccer’s global showcase will be held in Qatar from Nov 21 to Dec 18.

Some question the rationale for expansion at a time when most airports worldwide are yet to see pre-pandemic traffic levels.

But rising passenger footfall at other major airports in the United States, Europe and Middle East after two years of Covid-19 curbs left terminals nearly empty hint at better times to come.

Airlines are already revving up global recruitment drives to support the demand for travel taking off again.

At present, the strongest revival is in the US, while the recovery in Europe – as well as the Middle East – is more localised, based on domestic fundamentals and airline health, according to Mr Allan Schulte, head of management consulting firm Bain and Company’s Asia-Pacific airlines, logistics and transportation sector.

“We will see several airlines and airports with similar traffic to 2019 this year, but the composition of travellers is different. Short-haul traffic has recovered fastest.

“Long haul is naturally slower as several countries continue to limit travel and mandate testing or vaccination disclosure,” he said.

Mr Schulte noted that at the start of the pandemic, Bain’s models forecast that small- and medium-scale airlines and airports would struggle the most to maintain critical scale, with their commercial health dependent on the number of global connections. “Our forecasts largely played out. Large airports have grown back the fastest, and have taken market share from several of the smaller- and medium-sized airports. We expect this to continue for the next two to three years,” he added.

Airport hubs such as Dubai, Doha, Sydney and London all project a demand uptick this year in their latest quarterly reports.

Said Mr Paul Griffiths, chief executive of Dubai Airports: “While the recovery was initially led by pointto-point traffic, which continues to exceed pre-pandemic levels, the opening of international travel across many key markets has enabled transfer traffic to rebound to 60 per cent of 2019 levels.”

The outlook for the year at the world’s biggest international hub remains strong, with annual traffic projected to reach 58.3 million, exceeding initial forecasts by a significant margin, he added.

Engineer Badr Mohammed Al Meer, chief operating officer at Hamad International Airport (HIA) in Doha, Qatar, said: “We are looking forward to a busy summer period as more travel destinations open up around the world; however, the situation for our industry is expected to remain volatile and dynamic in 2022.

“We are taking an optimistic view of the year ahead, in which HIA will host fans from around the world for the Fifa World Cup 2022.

“We are (also) expecting a resurgence in air travel demand during the summer months.”

Airport traffic at HIA was up 162 per cent in the first quarter year on year.

Over in Australia, Sydney Airport chief executive Geoff Culbert said: “We continue to see a steady recovery in domestic passenger numbers at 64 per cent of pre-Covid-19 levels, with an additional 500,000 domestic travellers making their way through the domestic terminals in March.

“While international passenger traffic is gradually improving, the pace is slower than domestic, with international passengers at 26 per cent of pre-Covid-19 levels.”

Heathrow Airport in London noted “a temporary increase in demand driven by UK outbound leisure passengers taking advantage of removed UK travel restrictions and redeeming travel vouchers accrued during the pandemic”.

The airport is “updating our 2022 passenger forecast from 45.5 million to 52.8 million, which represents a return to 65 per cent of prepandemic traffic this year”.

“However, demand remains very volatile and we expect these passenger numbers to drop off significantly after the summer,” it said in a press statement.

In the US, John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York saw 4.2 million passengers travel to and from the busiest air passenger gateway in North America in March, with 35,681 flights to 165 non-stop destinations.

This represented a 227.6 per cent increase in passenger traffic year on year and a 118.7 per cent spike in flights.

Mr. Schulte sees two types of airlines best positioned to serve customers. “One is low-cost carriers. They’re typically focused on shorter routes and can offer price points for the marginal traveller – the person who decides lastminute to take that weekend holiday,” he said.

“On the full-service side, airlines with significant domestic networks will recover fastest. Earnings from their domestic flights are used to manage fluctuations in international demand as we wait for travel restrictions to lessen.”

Mr. Schulte said Bain is looking at domestic and cross-border demand in the US, Middle East and 

European regions to end the year at or perhaps slightly ahead of 2019 levels.

However, headwinds are significant, he added, noting that “oil prices, crew availability and parts availability have all been challenges to airlines globally”.

“Overflight restrictions due to the Ukraine conflict are real, but focused on a limited number of airlines and a few routes,” he added. Airlines have tried to stay aloft amid the pandemic. Qatar Airways is one airline that sought to make the best of a bad situation at the height of the pandemic.

“For Qatar Airways, it was a clear business strategy to never stop flying and we were one of the very few airlines that operated throughout the pandemic period,” Mr Jared Lee, its vice-president of sales for South-east Asia, South-west Pacific and the Indian subcontinent, said.

It was also one of the first airlines to convert passenger aircraft to carry only cargo. “We have since become one of the largest air cargo operators in our category,” said Mr Lee.

Emirates country manager for Singapore and Brunei Rashid Al Ardha said Covid-19 had a “significant impact on our passenger traffic. While we had to completely cease scheduled passenger flights at the start of the pandemic, our cargo transport and handling businesses continued to perform strongly, providing the bedrock upon which we were able to quickly reinstate passenger services”.

Qatar Airways also saw opportunities in global connectivity gaps that resulted from route suspensions by many airlines.

“We then jumped in to meet these demands, and we were able to expand into some routes that we were not flying to previously,” said Mr Lee.

Mr. Al Ardha said Emirates views the rest of this year with optimism: “We have built up some great momentum in 2021 and we expect business growth to pick up speed this year.

“Travel is returning steadily, and we are resilient, and will continue to work with industry partners to expand our network for our customers and communities.”

Mr. Lee said Qatar Airways ferried 14.83 million passengers in the 2021 calendar year, and its projection for this year is possibly more than double that number, especially with the Fifa World Cup 2022 taking place in Doha.

Markets doing well now include Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia and South Korea, he added.

Both Emirates and Qatar Airways said they have ramped up global recruitment drives, with the latter hiring 2,000 Filipinos last month alone to fill roles such as cabin crew as well as ground service and catering staff.

Source: The Strait Times

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