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Business travel in the Middle East to make a comeback in 2021?

Business travel, as with the rest of the aviation sector, has been severely impacted by COVID-19 and video conferencing trends, though the private travel segment is playing savior.

Travel is resuming around the world, but activity remains muted In the Middle East, full-year 2020 traffic is expected to plummet by 56% compared to 2019, according to IATA Ali Ahmed Alnaqbi, Founding and Executive Chairman of The Middle East & North Africa Business Aviation Association (MEBAA), this week said that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need of physical distancing will lead to an increase in private flying and growth in business aviation

Much has been said about the state of aviation during the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve already seen massive layoffs, salary cuts, margins in the red, and grounded planes. Travel is resuming around the world, but activity remains muted. Most people are still too worried to fly, and travel regulations such as 14 day quarantines upon entry into a country make things all the more difficult. 

Data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) for the MENA region has not been positive either. Released in August, IATA found the following: 

  • Job losses in aviation and related industries could grow to 1.5 million. That is more than half of the region’s 2.4 million aviation-related employment and 300,000 more than the previous estimate.
  • Full-year 2020 traffic is expected to plummet by 56% compared to 2019. Previous estimate was a fall of 51%.
  • GDP supported by aviation in the region could fall by up to $85 billion. Previous estimate was $66 billion.

Business travel, in particular, has had to give way to video conferencing, potentially putting the sector’s future in jeopardy. While videoconferencing has always existed, businesses needed a safe way to resume important communications, and firms like Zoom answered the call.

Globally, with travel restrictions continuing to ease around the world, a survey by international event organizer Messe Frankfurt Middle East found that 77% of respondents will be “allowed” to travel abroad before the end of this year. However, only 50% of those plan to do so by airplane in 2020, with many waiting for 2021 until they feel more comfortable about it. 34.4% won’t travel before January 2021, while 7.9% will wait till June 2021 before they do so. 

In fact, respondents from the UAE and Asia were the least likely to do so, the study found. 

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Hope for business travel in 2021?

While 2020 doesn’t seem too promising for business travel, we could see a comeback in 2021, thanks to private flying and an adaptive sector.

Ali Ahmed Alnaqbi, Founding and Executive Chairman of The Middle East & North Africa Business Aviation Association (MEBAA), this week said that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need of physical distancing will lead to an increase in private flying and growth in business aviation.

He believes that with smaller, private terminals with fewer staff on board the aircraft that have a limited number of crew serving passengers – business aviation can deal with the impact of COVID-19 more effectively.

“Business aviation has always had some degree of natural physical distancing in place and as such it is less difficult for companies within this industry to adapt to the new normal,” said Alnaqbi. “We expect to see an increase in demand in private flying and we will see opportunities open up. We are witnessing new groups of people who usually used to fly on commercial airlines now choosing to fly privately.”

Ali Ahmed Alnaqbi, Founding and Executive Chairman of The Middle East & North Africa Business Aviation Association (MEBAA). Image: MEBAA

Private flying is mostly reserved for the wealthy and elite, however, so it is not exactly clear how big of an impact private flying will have on the overall sector. 

In June, UK private jet charter provider PrivateFly, which provides consumers with access to 7000 accredited private aircraft, said that the COVID-19 pandemic is set to see more travel companies arranging private jets for clients in the coming months. It said enquiries via travel trade partners in the first two weeks of June were up 85% on the same time last year, despite travel restrictions being much stricter at the time. 

“NetJets, one of the biggest private jet companies, said demand was back to 85 per cent of normal flying levels by late June after dropping to 20 per cent in late April,” the Financial Times reported.

For now, the business travel sector will have to withstand inevitable shrinking, buoyed slightly by some activity in the private aviation segment. However, going forward, aviation companies will have to reconsider their business models and marketing strategies to encourage business professionals to travel again. 

Related: Work beyond conference rooms: Airbnb’s business travel trends 2019