There is growing optimism around an aviation recovery; in the UK it’s almost proportional to the rate of vaccinations and that optimism is beginning to be felt elsewhere with confidence being reinjected into the travel and tourism sector. There is still a very long and difficult journey ahead but at last there may be some better news and quite frankly anyone inside the aviation bubble will have expected the first quarter of the year to be awful; just not this awful.
Domestic & Regional First –it has become commonly accepted that domestic markets will recover first followed by regional international markets. In the case of the very large domestic markets, it could be argued that domestic capacity has probably been as strong as it could be allowing for the absence of any international connectivity. Certainly the CARES Act in the United States and central government support in China have provided protection to local carriers.
Regional international capacity has been identified as second in the recovery with some short-lived openings in Europe, Latin America and Africa confirming that very point. Sadly, many of those bubbles have burst, corridors been closed and in the case of Ireland dental appointments missed as “essential treatment” switched to Tenerife; coincidentally the latest way to try and get a dose of vitamin D. The speed with which regional international demand will bounce back remains the great unknown but in Europe airlines are certainly doing all they can to stimulate demand and tour operators are reporting better than expected bookings and yields for Summer 2021.
The Long Haul Quandry – expectations for a long-haul recovery appear to be not quite so high, certainly in the first three-quarters of 2021 although there are some incredible fares on offer even in peak months from airlines. Indeed, for those able, turning left at the aircraft door seems like a bargain at the moment even from the most expensive carriers in the world. Make no mistake, long-haul travel will return; there are simply too many stranded expats, families and bucket list travellers waiting to be able to book a flight. But with that recovery comes an interesting dilemma that the industry has yet to really work through and it could be expensive for both the airlines and the travellers; and that issue is Minimum Connecting Times or MCT’s.
In every transfer market the connecting time is crucial, the shorter the connecting time then the shorter the elapsed journey time and the higher the position on the distribution system screen. And for many years the convention was that the higher the position then the more likelihood of a sale; pricing now had a greater influence but nevertheless airlines want to provide the quickest journey from A to B. However, some of those principles are likely to be challenged along the road to recovery as new processes are put in place.
Social Distancing While Connecting! – it’s a contradiction, to socially distance when connecting; but it will become a real challenge for airlines and airports in the coming months as demand rebuilds. The principle of a hub airport is pretty simple, feed in as many flights as possible in a short period of time, connect them to a series of flights departing perhaps an hour to two hours later and then give all the staff an hour or two off before repeating the exercise again. Simple and very effective; but possible in the new “normal” world of travel, perhaps not.
The logistics of handling thousands of connecting passengers in a few hours are complex at the best of times but adding requirements for more detailed health screening, checking of vaccination passports whilst keeping sufficient distancing between passengers will add new levels of complexity. It is very likely that MCT’s will have to be extended; at least in the short to medium term as we learn to adapt and live with Covid-19. Are such changes important, does it really matter, perhaps an extended stopover of another hour will not make much difference; well, the answer is yes, that hour could make all the difference.
If nothing else this one example highlights the complexity of scheduling and if you are still following the logic, then well done! Any change in connecting times, turnaround processes and control authority requirements can have a huge impact on airlines who have to balance commercially attractive scheduling with asset utilisation and the heavy cost burden of having to use more aircraft to deliver the optimal schedule. And that is when it’s easy, but in the case of Australia it could be even more complex.