While there is a clear sentiment to travel, when the majority of travellers will truly feel comfortable to fly seems to be stretching further and further to the right

19 June, 2020

While Akbar Al Baker may not be in the same league as Michael O’Leary when it comes to classic quotes, he is never one to miss an opportunity to promote his beloved Qatar Airways or his home country. Comments from the two airline executives can arguably often be taken with a pinch of salt as purely seeking media attention, but can still set of alarm bells across the industry.

The remarks of Mr Al Baker this week during an interview on the Sky News channel did just that. The Qatar Airways Group CEO was being questioned live about the airlines future aircraft arrivals when he said that both Airbus and Boeing had been informed by the airline that it would not take any new aircraft deliveries either this year or next.

No surprise there given the current predicament of the industry, but it was his follow up comment that deliveries of new aircraft will now be postponed for as long as eight to ten years that was concerning. Any optimism on the initial recovery of the industry may have now quickly drained away, although Mr Al Baker quantified his observation with the comment that as traffic grows Qatar Airways will “bring forward these aircraft deliveries”.

There are numerous organisations looking at consumer sentiment from visiting shops, eating at restaurants to flying domestically, travelling abroad and staying in hotels. As would be expected, these seem to vary considerably by country, but it also appears by the demographic of the analysis group too. Those that are tracking changes in this sentiment over time provide some more valuable insights into consumer behaviour.

The question are you willing to travel is perhaps now not so important as when you will travel. Most of us want to escape our surroundings just as some of us will want to drive a Ferrari, eat in Michelin starred restaurants and win the lottery. It doesn’t mean we can and will and those two latter issues remain the problem as travel restrictions remain and fear lingers.

New research from International Air Transport Association (IATA) highlights this perfectly. While a similar level of respondents to its Apr-2020 and Jun-2020 surveys show an intent to fly, there has been a significant shift in when they expect that to happen.

IATA’s Jun-2020 research shows 45% of travellers intend to return to the skies within a few months of the pandemic subsiding with a further 36% said that they would wait six months. That is a significant shift from Apr-2020 when 61% said that they would return to travel within a few months of the pandemic subsiding and 21% responded that they would wait about six months. This would suggest a longer initial path to recovery.

A May-2020 survey of more than 1,000 UK consumers by UBS Evidence Lab, the bank’s data arm revealed that more than four in five (81%) had no plans to travel outside the country in the next four months. The UK has been hit harder by Covid-19 than many other countries and a level of fear now appears to have become dug in to the population.

The Travel Recovery Insights portal from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) highlights that the UK has the most pessimistic outlook when it comes to resuming air travel or staying in a hotel, just ahead of the United States of America.

CHART - There are significant geographical differences in traveller sentiment to fly domestically, travelling internationally or stay in a hotelSource: The Blue Swan Daily and Boston Consulting Group's Travel Recovery Insights portal

The average among the seven countries that it tracks sentiment – Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, UK and USA – is that 58% are concerned about travelling internationally in the near future, 48% are concerned about taking a domestic flight and 42% are concerned about staying in a hotel.

In the UK those figures are 69%, 62% and 55%, and all three are only one less for the USA and Canada is not that far behind. For the UK that is a 19%, 29% and 31% increase in concern across the three parameters.

Even in China, where a recovery is projected to bring domestic capacity levels almost back to 2019 levels by the end of this year, the BCG portal shows that almost a half (45%) of people are still concerned about travelling internationally in the near future and around a third are concerned about flying domestically or staying in a hotel (32% and 33%, respectively).

Can we believe everything we see and hear? How do we define near future? The phrase ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’ describes the persuasive power of numbers, particularly the use of statistics to bolster weak arguments comes to mind. But, what all these sentiment surveys highlight means very little while travel restrictions remain in place.