Held under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority, Chairman of Dubai Airports, Chairman and Chief Executive of Emirates Airline and Group

Restarting the engines: Dubai Leads UAE Aviation recovery in late 2020-early 2021

The end of the 2020 was a natural time to look back nervously at a truly disastrous year for aviation worldwide, with understandable anxiety about what 2021 held in store. Though the Middle Eastern aviation industry endured an estimated $7 billion in losses for the year, the predicted comeback appears to already be materialising.

In last month’s newsletter, we highlighted how demand for ME air travel was predicted to recover by 43% in 2021, while noting that even this limited level of recovery would be dependent on multiple factors. These include successful vaccination rollout efforts, better airport security and safety upgrades, and rebuilding consumer confidence, particularly among international travellers. Fortunately, the past two months have witnessed several encouraging trends take place that suggest that such a recovery phase is on track. 

Like much of the world, vaccination efforts against COVID-19 are crucial in the Middle East for restarting national economies and protecting populations. In mid-January, the UAE became the world’s number one vaccinator of ‘medically eligible’ residents, with a distribution rate of 24.58 doses per 100 people in this particular category. Overall, it had vaccinated 1.8 million people by 18th January and achieved a dose administration rate of 18.18 per 100 people, making it number 2 in the world, just behind Israel. This represents a crucial victory for the country and wider region in its ongoing efforts to overcome the pandemic and restart key industries crippled by it.

Vaccination rates are all the more important in the UAE now, considering the jump in winter tourism rates the country is experiencing. Late December saw a surge of holidaymakers arriving into Dubai, desperate to escape lockdown and colder climes. This, combined with a preparatory Christmas travel rush, led to Dubai International (DXB) being the world’s busiest airport in the world in December, with a surge of around 400,000 passengers arriving between the 9th-23rd. In January, traffic levels remained strong, and the Dubai-London route remained the busiest international route globally for the month. While overall passenger numbers at DXB for 2020 were less than 20% of 2019 levels, this buoyant performance in January 2021 is highly encouraging, setting the tone for the next few months and possibly the rest of the year.

Alongside climbing passenger numbers, the UAE is also leading the way in bringing back industry events in a safe and controlled manner. Q2 is looking encouragingly busy with dozens of major events opening their doors once again, including Airport Show 2021 which will feature our newly introduced Hybrid+ digital platform for those unable to attend in person.

Looking ahead, UAE’s aviation industry appears to be anticipating the new reality of air travel during and post-pandemic. Both Emirates and Etihad Airways are leading the charge on making passengers’ lives easier regarding COVID testing and vaccination certification by becoming some of the first airlines to offer the IATA pass. Collaborating with the International Air Transport Association, the pass will allow passengers to receive COVID test results and to verify they are eligible to travel. The pass can also be used as a useful platform for passengers to manage all their travel documentation.

This is a vital piece of preparation for the rapidly approaching ‘new normal’ of air travel, where digital health certification of negative COVID test results or proof of vaccination will quickly become standard requirements pre-takeoff. If ME airlines like Emirates and Etihad can become successful first adopters, they will be able to reassure their guests that they can travel safely and with minimal complication on their flights.

With increasing passenger numbers, pre-emptive efforts to simplify future travel, and the UAE’s nationwide vaccination efforts going well, this month has begun with plenty of good news for the region’s aviation industry. As 2021 unfolds, this kind of positive start is essential for rebuilding the confidence of both the industry and its customers.