According to airline officials and industry data, Gulf residents stayed home in greater numbers this summer due to fears over the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic and the global recession.
In a difficult summer for airlines, outbound travel fell by about 30 percent compared with last summer, forcing carriers to compete aggressively on price and services.
The industry data confirms the air travel slump continued even during the summer high season when Gulf residents traditionally escape the hot weather to take family holidays in Europe and southeast Asia.
“June, July, and August is traditionally when they depart – they didn’t this year,” said James Hogan, the chief executive of Etihad Airways. Etihad joined other airlines this week in offering promotions to stimulate end-of-the-year travel.
Peter Pollak, the Gulf director for the German carrier Lufthansa, said the slow demand was expected to continue in the winter season. “We have seen the advance booking figures and the market is still down,” he said.
The Etihad and Lufthansa executives said the lower summer demand was exacerbated by the continued spread of the H1N1 virus, which was upgraded to pandemic status in June by the World Health Organization. It is the first global pandemic since the 1968 Hong Kong flu outbreak. The H1N1 pandemic has claimed six lives in the UAE, according to the latest known figures.
With demand stunted by H1N1 and the recession, Middle East carriers are expected to lose US$500 million (Dh1.83 billion) this year, and airlines worldwide will lose $11 billion because of the downturn, according to the International Air Transport Association.
Despite the fall in outbound travel, Etihad and Lufthansa this week reported they were each holding or increasing their share of traffic in a contracting market.
Between January and July, Etihad’s revenue passenger kilometers – a key metric for airlines – increased by 14.1 percent across its network, it said, compared with an industry-wide average decline of 6.8 percent. M.r Hogan said the airline had worked to stimulate demand from source markets in Europe and Australia to compensate from lower bookings in the GCC this summer.
Lufthansa said it was carrying 13 percent more passengers to the UAE than at the same time last year, led primarily by corporate travel to Abu Dhabi. Lufthansa flies from Frankfurt to Abu Dhabi, and to Dubai from Munich and Frankfurt. “We’ve been happy with very strong growth in Abu Dhabi,” he said.
While affecting local airlines, the swine flu pandemic could actually boost demand within the local hospitality industry as residents stay closer to home, the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) said last month.
“The impact of H1N1, coupled with the global economic crisis, is likely to boost regional and domestic hotel occupancies,” said Amr Abdel-Ghaffar, the Middle East representative for UNWTO.