DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES (AP) — Dubai International Airport saw the coronavirus pandemic push passenger traffic down by an unprecedented 70 per cent in 2020 compared to the previous year, its CEO announced yesterday, even as the airport held onto its prized title as the world’s busiest for international travel.
While the key east-west transit point started to see an uptick in traffic after long-haul carrier Emirates resumed its routes last summer, the airport’s 2020 passenger load of 25.9 million is still a trickle compared to 2019. Airlines slashed their schedules and flights declined by more than 50 per cent.
For months as the travel industry collapsed worldwide, Dubai’s massive airport, which saw 86.4 million passengers in 2019, became a ghost-town of shuttered shops. One of its two main terminals shut down.
“It was very, very dramatic,” CEO of Dubai Airports Paul Griffiths, told The Associated Press. “And of course, we had to respond in a very dramatic way to keep our liquidity.”
The airport slashed its workforce from 8,000 to 3,000, Griffiths said, with front-line service and maintenance staff taking the biggest hit. But recovery gained momentum in December as the city promoted itself as a pandemic-friendly vacation spot for tourists fleeing tough restrictions back home.
In December alone, passenger volumes surpassed industry expectations at 2.19 million, the airport said. Israelis flocked to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) after a breakthrough normalisation deal and lockdown-weary travellers poured in to celebrate the holidays and New Year’s Eve at crowded establishments and luxury hotels.
Underpinning Dubai’s re-opening since last July has been an aggressive coronavirus testing campaign, with visitors welcome from anywhere as long as they get tested on arrival and in many cases before departure.
Now, Griffiths said, the airport is betting that a swift rollout of coronavirus vaccines will be the “overriding key to getting the world travelling again”. The UAE has launched the world’s second-fastest coronavirus vaccination drive, with over 50 doses administered per 100 residents as of yesterday.
To spur international tourism in the coming months, Griffiths envisions travel corridors or “bubbles” between states with the fastest inoculation campaigns, such as the UAE, Israel and Britain, allowing travellers from those countries to freely visit.
“Once we get to a point where every country feels like it’s got a significant number of people vaccinated, then confidence in travel will re-emerge,” he said.
Despite signs of life, and vaccines offering a glimmer of hope, the industry’s outlook remains uncertain. Although overall demand is expected to rise this year, airlines are showing caution on international routes. Wide-body jets used for long-haul flights, like Emirates’ iconic fleet of double-decker Airbus A380s, stand idle. Satellite images show dozens of A380s parked at Dubai World Central, the Gulf city’s second airport that went out of use for commercial flights during the pandemic.
Vaccination campaigns have sputtered worldwide and concerns have risen over more transmissible virus variants. Changing quarantine requirements across the world have thrown itineraries into disarray, at times stranding travellers overseas.