Airlines slashing fares as pandemic continues but passengers unlikely to bite, say industry watchers
SINGAPORE: From generous discounts to flexible schedules, airlines are doing all they can to nudge pandemic-weary travellers towards the skies again.
Last week Dubai-based Emirates launched a global sale on its economy and business class seats for flights booked between Jan 19 and Feb 2 for travel until Jun 15 to destinations such as Los Angeles, Moscow and Istanbul.
The carrier is also offering "generous rebooking terms" that would allow customers to change their travel dates or extend their ticket validity for up to two years.
Turkish Airlines is offering a 40 per cent discount on all ticket types for international flights, while other airlines such as China Eastern Airlines are offering travel passes that allow for unlimited flights for a single price.
The pandemic has ravaged commercial aviation, with the International Civil Aviation Organization estimating that last year, airlines saw 2.6 billion fewer passengers than in 2019 - a 60 per cent drop.
This has led to a loss of about US$370 billion in the gross passenger operating revenues of airlines, the United Nations aviation agency said.
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"It varies from airline to airline but many are offering steep discounts amidst the worsening flying environment to get some revenue," said Shukor Yusof, who heads aviation consultancy Endau Analytics.
With countries beginning to roll out COVID-19 vaccinations for their populations, some may think that it is safer to travel now, said Ngee Ann Polytechnic senior tourism lecturer Michael Chiam.
"Airlines are targeting this group of passengers by offering them attractive fares to incentivise them to travel," said Dr Chiam, adding such promotions provide an opportunity for airlines to rebuild market share in such uncertain times for the industry.
"It will certainly attract a small group of people who may feel it is safer to travel once they are vaccinated," he said.
Dr Chiam expects however that more travellers will take a wait-and-see approach and hold back on their travel plans until the pandemic comes under control.
Countries around the world have begun vaccinating their populations. A Bloomberg report estimates that more than 68 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had been given out worldwide as of Tuesday (Jan 26).
Still, the arrival of vaccines has so far not encouraged more flying as borders remain mostly shut, said Mr Shukor.
"It is unlikely that world tourism will see a resurgence this year as travel restrictions are still very much in place around the world and it is unlikely to see these restrictions being lifted in the next six months," said Ngee Ann Polytechnic's Dr Chiam.
"In order for the world to be declared safe, a large majority of people around the world will have to be vaccinated and that may take a few years," he added.
A survey of around 10,000 people across 12 countries published by London-based Inmarsat Aviation in November last year found about 40 per cent of respondents expect to travel less frequently by any means even after the pandemic subsides.
Air travel is unlikely to recover this year even with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines as there are "a lot of unknowns still lingering", said Mr Shukor.
In light of this, many airlines have little choice but to continue offering heavy discounts, the aviation analyst said. But he warned this may prove futile if the global situation does not improve.
"Expect to see airlines collapsing soon if there is no change in cross-border travel restrictions and infections do not recede."