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Return of Africa/Asia travellers to the skies may give boost to Emirates

By Rémy Darras
Posted on Wednesday, 30 September 2020 17:31

On Sunday, March 22, 2020, long-haul carrier Emirates said it has dramatically cut its passenger flight destinations from 145 locations to just 13 countries. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File)

Although the Dubai-based airline giant is set to resume its operations on the continent, its future remains deeply uncertain. However, to get out of its rut Emirates is counting on the return of travellers flying between Africa and Asia.

Like its main competitors, Turkish Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines, Emirates began gradually resuming its operations in West Africa as of 15 July, with service to Abidjan, Accra and Conakry restored in early September, although the carrier remains banned from operating in Nigeria due to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) placing visa restrictions on Nigerian travellers.

Reduced flight schedule

The carrier currently connects 11 African destinations – compared with about 20 before the pandemic – and is getting ready to resume service to five additional destinations at the beginning of October, i.e., Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban, Harare and Mauritius. Nevertheless, Emirates will be operating on a reduced flight schedule, providing, for example, service to Dakar twice a week versus five times a week prior to the health crisis.

Given constantly evolving health restrictions and regulatory requirements, the Dubai-based airline giant is struggling to look ahead – even in the near term. The number of passengers aboard the airline’s fleet of Boeing 777s has fluctuated and flights are rarely as full as they used to be, said a source with close ties to the company. According to an aviation sector analyst, “only the arrival of a vaccine has the potential to reassure travellers, facilitate their travel arrangements and give carriers more visibility”.

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But not everything is doom and gloom. Over the past few weeks, Emirates has benefitted from a clientele of West African merchants and tourists attracted by Dubai’s simple visa formalities and hotel deals, whereas Europe has continued to shut out West African nationals unless they are EU residents. Each year the UAE attracts millions of consumers to its shopping centres and ultra-luxury duty-free outlets.

Hopeful for a recovery

To reinvigorate its business, the carrier – whose hub is a major gateway to Asia and the Middle East, which explains its success – is eagerly awaiting the reopening of the Chinese and Saudi Arabian borders, as early October marks the beginning of the Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca. Non-Saudi Muslims will be permitted to make the pilgrimage starting on 1 November.

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Aside from this cohort of religious customers, African importers have grown to become Emirates’ largest customer base in recent years, with the number of passengers travelling from Africa to its destinations in China, India, Japan and South Korea consistently on the rise.

Although its top destination continues by a long shot to be Guangzhou, with its many street markets where merchants travel to stock up on clothing and electronics, the airline has also expanded its destinations to include second-tier cities like Zhengzhou and Yinchuan at the heart of China’s hinterland.

Emirates flights have also become increasingly popular among Chinese, Korean and Australian executives travelling to Senegal – mainly on gas industry-related business – and Côte d’Ivoire. “These passengers will be the first ones to come back,” Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam told us back in May.

Despite the current business environment, such comments offer a glimmer of hope to Emirates, which has already reimbursed $1.1bn in airfare to its customers worldwide and is, at least on paper, in a strong enough position in terms of liquidity, government aid and cost structure to reap the benefits of a resumption of traffic. . . the date of which has yet to be determined.

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