Could better times be on the horizon for the airline industry? After months of misery there was more positive news last week when the International Air Transport Association, the industry body, said that a digital Covid Travel Pass is going to be ready “within weeks”.
The launch of the app, which verifies whether passengers have had the required tests or vaccines to enter a country, could support an uptick in air travel as vaccination campaigns gather pace.
Qatar Airways is one of the airlines conducting trials of the travel pass. After maintaining a fuller schedule than others during the pandemic, the Middle Eastern carrier also believes it will be in a stronger position to respond to returning demand from passengers.
WiC talked to Tom Scruby – the airline’s Vice President Pacific – for more on how it has navigated the toughest conditions in living memory.
How has Qatar Airways coped with the Covid-19 crisis?
We are one of the few global carriers that chose not to stop flying during the pandemic, taking a strategic decision when the crisis was at its worst to keep operating to 30 destinations on a schedule of about 150 flights a week.
In the early days our focus was on repatriation flights but more recently our network has been growing in support of essential business that needs to flow across sectors like mining, shipping and government-related travel.
Obviously no one is flying for leisure purposes but we’ve also focused on customers who need to travel on humanitarian or compassionate grounds. We have been able to support a high percentage of this market because of our decision to maintain our network, even though overall demand has been dramatically depleted. By flying through the pandemic we have strengthened our reputation as an airline that customers can rely on and in many markets we have been growing our share of the pie.
Which countries have seen the most air travel during the period?
It completely depends on the rules and regulations in each market. For instance, flights into Australia are controlled by quarantine processes while outbound travel is only open to non-nationals: Australians can’t fly unless they have formal permission. And it’s similar in other countries, with air travel ebbing and flowing depending on the conditions being set by governments. The situation is constantly evolving and our challenge as an airline is to be ready to adapt to the changing circumstances.
China’s economy was one of the first to get going again after the initial Covid-19 outbreak. How has that been reflected in your business?
Qatar Airways operated to seven destinations in Greater China prior to the Covid outbreak: Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Chongqing, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Hong Kong.
Strategically it’s a very important footprint for us, although the market has changed significantly during the pandemic. Domestic air travel in China has been more freed up, but international flights are still much reduced. Currently we are serving Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Hong Kong from a passenger perspective but we hope to get back to a fuller operation by the end of the year.
What about cargo traffic? Are you operating more freighter services into your China cities?
Yes we are operating freighter flights into all of our pre-pandemic destinations and on higher frequencies than the passenger flights on offer at the moment.
Cargo is forming such a significant part of our global operations, including the China market. In the early stages of the crisis we pooled a massive amount of free cargo and support for medical relief flowing into China. Later we started doing more outbound flights carrying emergency equipment and medical supplies from China to other countries. More recently it has been more of a mixture of cargo traffic out of China, not just medical supplies but also IT equipment, fashion and perishables.
What role does China play in Qatar Airway’s growth plan after Covid?
China is on track to be the world’s largest aviation market and we are strategically positioned to take advantage of that. When the skies reopen it is going to be an exciting time. I expect a surge in demand for VFR [visiting friends and relatives] traffic and our network will be ready to service those passengers.
The road to recovery is going to be a long one but we should be in a better position to support China-related traffic as more of our network is operational. It is going to take longer for other airlines to get back to previous levels.
What are Qatar Airway’s main passenger flows from the China market?
One of our main strengths is our connector service through our hub in Qatar. We carry a lot of long-haul traffic to Africa, South America and the Middle East, for example. This is one of the ways we have supported flows of essential workers in recent months and we expect this long-haul traffic to recover further in future.
What kinds of passengers are these: employees of Chinese firms with construction projects?
Yes, construction staff and technical specialists travelling to work on major infrastructure projects are one of the examples. Qatar was one of the first countries to sign the Memorandum of Understanding for Belt and Road cooperation in 2014, and the two countries have maintained close collaboration in commerce and trade in general.
How about inbound flows into China?
Many of the passengers travelling into China before Covid come from the same markets [Africa, the Middle East and South America], as well as from Europe, especially the UK, France and Italy.
The traffic arriving in Hangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai is a mix of business and leisure passengers. Traffic to Guangzhou is mainly business, while passengers coming to Chengdu are a mix of business and leisure visitors. Many are flying to Chengdu to see the pandas.
How do you get your brand better known in the Chinese market?
This year has been really important in positioning Qatar Airways as an airline with a mission to get people home safely and reliably. Flying through the pandemic has strengthened our relationships with governments and with the travel trade. Our resilience has elevated our brand among customers in China.
What’s your view on better times for the airline sector later this year?
Obviously the supply of seats is closely controlled by national governments at the moment so it’s difficult to predict where the crisis is going to take us. Vaccination programmes are going to be an important part of markets opening up again but there is still a long road to recovery and I think we can assume that restrictions on travel will persist for a large part of this year.
After that I think we are likely to see some long-term changes across the industry. Demand will start to return when skies start to reopen. But airlines won’t simply be returning to the same schedules as previously. Many of the marginally profitable routes won’t be there any more.
I think that leaves Qatar Airways in a strong position to support travel and trade in markets where we haven’t done much business previously. And of course, we are ready, willing and able to do that.
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