Emirates has restored daily services into Auckland, plans more flights into New Zealand next year, and is considering bringing back the double-decker A380.
The airline has been flying passengers constantly into the country during the pandemic, aside from a brief pause when its entire fleet was grounded just as Covid-19 struck early last year.
Emirates’ regional manager Chris Lethbridge said the airline had flown about 40,000 New Zealand citizens and residents back home and about 37,000 passengers out of the country during the past 21 months.
“In New Zealand we managed to maintain our capacity pretty well. After the initial closures that were experienced around the world, we bounced back pretty quickly.”
Its current one-flight-a-day schedule is way down on the 21 services a week that it was operating into Auckland and Christchurch before the pandemic, but passenger demand was strong, said Lethbridge, even though it depended on space in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ).
“This is one of the challenges: some days you get a lighter load and other days you’ll get what we would almost consider a normal one. It depends on who’s been successful with MIQ.”
Although the emergence of the Omicron Covid variant has prompted the airline to suspend services to southern Africa, by late last month it had restored 90 per cent of its network and was on track to reach 70 per cent of pre-pandemic capacity by the end of this year.
The Dubai government-owned carrier has been able to staunch heavy losses, posting an April-September loss of US$1.6 billion ($2.3b), compared with a US$3.4b loss during the same period in 2020. Its home base is fully open and the United Arab Emirates has just topped Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking.
The airline now had 120 destinations in its network plus those of airline partners and this meant Kiwis were able to get home from just about anywhere in the world, said Lethbridge.
“We’ve seen an awful lot of traffic coming from what we would consider non-core city pairs, using Dubai as the hub to get home simply because it’s been the only way they can get home.”
Lethbridge said Emirates hoped to restore services to Christchurch in July next year.
The airline is currently flying via Kuala Lumpur for a technical stop to maximise cargo loads. It has flown more than 12,000 tonnes of high-value exports out of New Zealand during the pandemic and brought in essential goods, including more than 2 million Covid-19 vaccine doses through its cold chain network.
It had flown non-stop between Auckland and Dubai from 2016 until Covid struck, and those direct flights were back in its system from July.
Emirates is now flying a Boeing 777ER instead of its popular Airbus A380 to this country.Auckland once had more Emirates A380s on the ground at any one time than any place but Dubai, and Lethbridge said passengers constantly asked when the big plane would return.
He said that would depend on demand. The 777s had capacity for 450 passengers while the A380 could carry 525, and although obituaries for the double-deckers had been written last year, Emirates and other airlines were returning some of them to busy routes.
In the meantime, they would be used on routes where the business case was stronger, he said. Planned border settings requiring a week’s self-isolation for foreign visitors from the end of April would keep a lid on demand.
“We have to be careful about putting on more capacity when there is insufficient demand,” said Lethbridge.
There would be no international tourism this summer, which was a blow for airlines and the visitor industry, and recovery would not be until next year.
“Realistically, it won’t be until October next year and that’s the pain we’ll have to endure.We’re still looking at another year away before that demand returning.”
But he was confident that tourists would return, especially given this country’s health response to Covid. “We’ve had low death rates now, that has to equate to being a pretty attractive destination.”
Schedules were being bumped around by Covid and government responses, and could change quickly.
“We’re nimble enough now that if for some reason all the stars lined up – if Omicron isnothing and we have high vaccination rates – we could dial up more quickly if we needed.”
Kiwis taking flight
Since the announcement of MIQ being removed as an obstacle for Kiwi leisure travel next year, interest in Emirates’ flights had shot up. Lethbridge said customers had built up savings they no longer wanted to spend on cars or their houses, were fully vaccinated and were increasingly confident about flying into the world next New Zealand winter.
“They know the drill. We’ve all lived with this long enough to feel safe and we’re starting to see a glimmer of those traditional booking trends return, which is really positive.”
One risk for Kiwis wanting to travel next winter will be missing out because of the lack of capacity, with planes, hotels and cruise ships all filling up around the world.
Emirates has been flying to Aotearoa for 18 years and Lethbridge said it had won friends for its continued presence during the pandemic. “I believe we’ll enjoy a lot of goodwill out of this and we’ll win some customers.”
Many of those who had flown had been pleasantly surprised at the level of service, which had not been significantly affected.
Lethbridge said there had been strong demand for premium cabins into New Zealand.
On some days the business class cabin was entirely full, he said.
He expected this to continue, with more one-way flying by Kiwis coming home for good next year, and with travellers who wanted the guarantee of more personal space on planes.
But he expected some segments of the market would not be keen to travel next year.
“You might get some older people who don’t travel, but then you’ll get the kids and the grand-kids coming to see them – the numbers may not change, just the makeup of that segment might be slightly different.”
Emirates has just introduced premium economy on some routes and although New Zealand was a natural market, it wasn’t top of the list for planes with the new cabins fitted.
“Premium economy is a classic example of being able to use the time [during the pandemic] to enhance our product offering.”
Lethbridge said the competitive landscape would be different next year as aviation recovered.
“It will be interesting to see to see what other carriers do. I think there will be some casualties but competition is good and I hope we see them in the market soon for New Zealand’s sake.”
The government’s freight support scheme, which runs until March next year, had been appreciated and gave a “layer of protection” on some flights.
“We’d welcome any support to be extended simply because we’re not out of the woods yet.”
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