Predictions for when airlines might recover to something near 2019 levels are currently at around 2024.
Many industry experts predict business travel won’t come back to the pre-pandemic levels, with estimates of it remaining down from between 10% and 15% in the long term.
Enter Tim Clark, president of Emirates, who offers a contrarian view to what is otherwise a gloomy outlook.
The company resumed its A380 onboard shower and bar facilities in recent days, which Clark acknowledges is part the strategy to keep the brand front of mind.
“It’s very important that you believe you are going to continue to be in business and continue what you once did.”
Speaking at a CAPA Live event earlier this week, he says he’s not a believer in the “new norm”, adding: “My belief is that demand will return in a very robust manner particularly as it has been so suppressed in the last ten months and likely to be suppressed for at least another six to nine months.
"But, when it does, those of us that are left in business need to ensure, with the tools we use, that we are a known entity.”
While many have argued that airlines will need to downsize and the aviation industry will emerge much smaller, Clark says this is disruption and for airlines “you have to assume you will recapture the growth curve you had prior to the pandemic.”
His optimism did not extend to discussions between governments or acceptance of testing as a way forward.
Asked about a possible way through, he said: “I’m not optimistic about that. The whole, almost doctrines, of laissez faire, survival of the fittest, seems to be driving governments and action they are taking when there have been attempts at cohesion.”
His feeling is that governments will continue to act in isolation and “the biggest casualties” are going to be aviation, hospitality and tourism.
“Many months ago I saw this would get worse before it gets better, even worse if the pandemic returned, which it has, and governments would adopt pretty draconian measures.”
He was referring to European markets in particular and whether governments might be protectionist towards domestic airlines.
He adds that he’s not optimistic about testing and tracing becoming more effective and that it has been difficult to persuade governments.
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Clark stresses the importance of aviation in rebuilding economies, a sentiment echoed by Ed Sims, CEO of WestJet, who also spoke during the virtual event.
He says: “What we’ve said is that we need to play a critical role in the economic recovery of the country. Having essential workers and our corporate guest base traveling freely around is going to generate liquidity in the country.”
He adds that while governments are rightly making public health the priority, he does not see airlines as “agents of spread” of the virus.
In terms of recovery, Sims estimates 40% next year in his “darkest moments” and between 50% and 60% as a more optimistic view adding that there will be no real recovery until there’s low-cost rapid testing and a vaccine.
The carrier has already had to make 4,000 roles redundant and a further 6,000 on furlough and Sims talks of having to balance cashflow burn with a flexible workforce in the hope of an uptick in demand.
“An airline can’t exist for long without demand. We find ourselves in a position where we’re burning the furniture to keep the house warm. That’s ok until you’ve run out of furniture.”