Covid-19 and its associated lockdowns brought the global economy to its knees in what the International Air Travel Association called the worst year ever in terms of slow down for the aviation industry. One of the leading world carriers Emirates Airlines was not spared declaring a mid year loss of $3.8 billion for the 2020/2021 financial year. Prosper magazine’s Samuel Ssettumba interviewed Emirates Airline’s Vice President for Africa Badr Abbas in Dubai on how the Covid-19 pandemic is reshaping the global airline industry.
How did the Covid-19 induced crisis affect you operationally?
The Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on people, companies and countries was overwhelming and the toll it has taken especially on the aviation industry has been particularly heavy. Many countries were on partial or total lock down and aviation travel was significantly reduced or at a total standstill. Any efforts towards recovery were hampered by governmental travel restrictions which was a challenge for us.
We were also directed by the UAE General Aviation Authority to suspend our operations on March 25th 2020 for about eight weeks. During this time, we took swift actions and looked at cargo demand and other pockets of opportunity.
We also did some cost cutting through rigid financial discipline and this reduced the impact on our revenue. Also our resilience during this head wind was due to our successful business model and many years of investment in technology, infrastructure and skills. This helped us have greater efficiency especially digital acceleration. We are now deploying our resources wherever we see opportunities.
To help give more confidence to travelers, we introduced the flexible travel policy. They can extend their tickets or change their bookings for two years in addition to the multi risk travel insurance. We are confident we shall emerge from the crisis better positioned to compete.
For most of the safety measures we have implemented, there is no additional cost to the customer including the multi risk travel insurance. We make sure we have all the safety standards in place. Safety and hygiene has become the standard for all airlines. We have seen more confidence in people travelling returning to the skies.
What is the key take away from the new operating regime afforded by Covid-19?
Covid-19 offered not just Emirates but the industry an opportunity to offer more efficiency and resilience to respond better to short and long-term challenges including restoring travel confidence. For Emirates, post pandemic operations that help restore the confidence of air travel will enable us to harness the efficiency from technology – digital solutions – to help us plan and manage our own resources for cargo and passenger demand. ln time, this will optimise our operations.
We are also evaluating further measures to enhance the health and safety of customers across all touch points by introducing biometrics – as much contactless technology as possible for a seamless on ground and on board experience.
Covid-19 affected where it hurts most for airlines and that is travel. Can the aviation sector players, going forward, confidently say they have learnt enough to deal with such crises in future?
The magnitude of this crisis has been on a scale the industry has never seen before. However, people don’t realise that the aviation sector is a resilient one and we have managed to navigate our ways through other crises. I can’t speak for other airlines but for Emirates, our “Can do and Will do” attitude has been the bedrock for our efforts to recover. Everyone across the company has worked very hard during the most difficult time and I think that all of us together will do better going forward.
How much do you think it might take for things to return to normal?
Things continue to change by the day in different countries. But we hope that by the half of this year (2021), we will start to see a return to normal. This will not mean that people will not adhere to universal precautionary measures such as (wearing) masks or social distancing. However you hope that there will be more freedom of movement at least in the travel space. What must critically happen is the complete travel confidence among the travelers for the wider industry to recover. We are seeing this return gradually as many countries ramp up their vaccination programmes, removing restrictions to make it easy to enter their countries.
Uganda Airlines now has permission to soon fly to Dubai. What is your take on the likely competition from this new entrant?
We welcome competition. It offers the consumer more choice and convenience based on the travel needs of the passenger. Uganda is a big market and the pack can always get bigger and so we are always happy to have competition. We welcome that.
How critical is Uganda as a market to Emirates in the region?
Uganda has grown to become an important destination for Emirates in Africa. Today, we operate five daily flights and we hope we shall resume our daily frequencies as soon as we see demand picking up. We have a lot of demand in cargo out of Uganda and other African countries. We have perishables and other items we are exporting out of Uganda.