The most severely affected by the coronavirus outbreak, the aviation industry, experienced a dramatic recovery in the domestic market as the passenger amount crossed that in the pre-pandemic period in February during the increased travels to tourist destinations across the country.
However, with the resurgence of the virus from mid-March, the progress is under jeopardy because of the dangerous turn of the infections has compelled the government to suspend domestic flight operations for 7 days from April 5 because of the lockdown.
Industry insiders stated that although the confidence rose among air travellers in time, further strict restrictions on people’s movement to contain the spread of the virus really lowered the confidence.
According to the data from the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB), the recent recovery data shows that the number of daily air travellers reached 8,362 in February, which was 17.22% higher than the pre-pandemic level of 7,133 in December 2019.
But, the number of daily flights is still low in numbers compared to the pre-pandemic level.
In February 2021, 132 flights were operated on domestic routes daily on average while the figure was 137 flights in December 2019.
The total number of domestic air travellers was 2,34,142 in February 2021, which was a 6 per cent increase from the 2,21,123 in December 2019.
Mofizur Rahman, managing director of Novoair, a domestic airline, stated that the local aviation industry was in a good shape towards recovery as the number of air travellers reached the pre-pandemic level.
He noted that the air operators were increasing routes and flight frequency to meet the increasing demand. However, with the resurgence of the virus and flight suspensions disrupted the progress of recovery severely.
He added that because the aviation sector is the most-affected one by the pandemic, the government could consider keeping air travel out of suspension as air operators are maintaining all safety measures.
The country’s air operators focused on the domestic market for the recovery as the international market will take some time to recover because of the travel restrictions, quarantines and the high ticket fares.
Although the borders have opened, various safety protocols have made sure that the travellers are opting for the domestic tourist spots.
Resurgence of passengers forced the local air operators to introduce new domestic routes and offer tourist packages by joining hands with the hotels in the tourist spots. For example, US-Bangla Airlines, the largest private air operator in the country, increased its number of daily flights to 36 on domestic routes in March from 27-28 during the increased demands for travel.
The increase of travellers has forced the US-Bangla to offer summer tour packages with different hotels in Cox’s Bazar, one of the largest tourist hubs in the country.
Sikder Mezbahudding, adviser to US-Bangla, stated that the rising domestic travels brought back the airlines back to life but with the fresh new restrictions, it has taken them back to their previous status. He added that it was difficult to grow confidence among the travellers, but now airlines will have to start from the beginning again.
The new block came at a time when the US-Bangla added a new ATR 72-600 aircraft to its fleet with a plan to strengthen its domestic network.
Additionally, the virus resurgence came at a time when Novoair increased its number of flights targeting the summer. The airline increased its number of flights to 29 on March 28 from 25 amid rising air travels but within a week, it was faced with another lockdown.
Mes-bah-ul Islam, head of marketing and sales of Novoair, the airline was experiencing good recovery before the lockdown as the load factor improved above 85 per cent on domestic routes.
The state-owned operator Biman Bangladesh Airlines had inaugurated two new inter-connecting routes, Sylhet-Chittagong-Sylhet and Sylhet-Cox’s Bazar-Sylhet, in March to increase its network during the increasing demands for travel.
Barisal and Jessore routes were opened by the carrier from Dhaka in March as it plans to increase the number of flights with its four new Dash-8 aircraft.
Average daily flights numbers of the airline increased to 10 in March from 7 due to the inclusion of the new routes, as stated by Biman.
A senior executive of Biman also stated that the flight rate improved to 56 per cent in March, but further suspension spoiled its business plans.
The Bangladesh Bank in its latest survey ranked the aviation sector the third most-affected one in the pandemic. The growth rate of the sector tumbled to 4.61 per cent in 2020 from 6.37% in 2019, according to the survey report.
The latest survey revealed in March by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) found that people are becoming more confident to travel. Those expecting to travel within a few months of “Covid-19 containment” now account for 57 per cent of the survey respondents, up from 49 per cent in September 2020.
Based on the survey, this is supported by the vaccine rollout which indicates that 81 per cent of the people will be more likely to travel once vaccinated. And 72 per cent of the respondents want to travel as soon as possible after the coronavirus pandemic is contained to see friends and families.
A total of 4,700 interviews were conducted online in 11 markets between 15 and 23 February 2021 for the survey.
However, the resurgence of the virus led to renewed concerns over rising unemployment and falling earnings.
Given these concerns, consumers will remain cautious about their personal finances and future expenses, including spending on air travel, in the near-term, said IATA.