Emirates Q&A: Enda Corneille, the airline’s chief in Ireland, talks with Pól Ó Conghaile about how - and when – travel may return
There's a huge pent-up demand for travel, digital health passports could play a crucial role in its return, and flight bookings could look healthy again by January of next year.
That's according to Enda Corneille, Country Manager for Emirates in Ireland.
In his role with the Dubai-based airline, Mr Corneille manages operations in the Irish market, bringing 30 years of experience in aviation, including roles with Aer Lingus and as a global instructor at the IATA Training and Development Institute in Geneva, to the picture.
First, the big question. When do you think travel may return?
It’s really difficult to say... I can’t see demand returning until there’s some sort of certainty on vaccines. I think people are afraid. There’s a lot of pent-up demand – we’ve been speaking to the travel trade and there’s almost unanimity in the view that it will be Q3 or Q4 [July to September, or October to November] of this year before things begin to move.
That's not in the sense of travelling, but of booking... People who are travelling at the moment either have to travel or are repatriating. Tourists haven’t come into our shop yet, and really won’t do so until there are more places to fly and there is more certainty over vaccines, which will unlock this pent-up demand.
Pre-pandemic, Emirates ran double-daily flights out of Dublin. What’s the schedule now?
Emirates is currently at four flights a week, down from 14 flights a week. Our load factors are reasonable – we’re not empty, we’re not full, and we had a decent Christmas. We would hope to increase that by summer, but it will be maybe by one or two flights.
Significant increases in capacity in Dublin are completely dependent on major markets opening for us. Without places like Australia, New Zealand and Thailand, which were the basis for our pre-Covid schedules, there just isn’t demand.
What we’ve tried to do throughout the world, and in Ireland, is to take a common-sense approach to schedule growth, and to try to keep the growth in line with demand such as it is.
So four flights a week from Dublin is the right fit at the moment.
Note: This interview took place prior to a Sunday Independent report this weekend about British passengers returning from Dubai using Dublin as a back door to avoid UK travel restrictions and quarantine. Emirates and Mr Corneille were asked to provide a response to the story, but declined to comment.
Emirates requires passengers to test for Covid before flights. Tell us about that.
In April, we’ll be one of the first airlines in the world to trial the IATA Travel Pass… this is almost a digital version of the Yellow Card. It will verify what tests or vaccinations you need before going to a destination; it will enable labs and test centres to share those results to your app, and that can then be shared with your airline.
That for me is the future. That’s going to be trialled in Dubai in April and then hopefully rolled out worldwide.
Do you think future travellers will be required to carry proof of vaccination?
I think absolutely, we’re going to get into a situation where countries and airlines and various sea carriers will require either a test or a vaccination before people will be allowed to travel.
I can see this as similar to some of the regulations and rules that came out after 9/11. We now put all of our liquids into the tray and take our belts off, and we don’t even think about it. I think producing something like a Travel Pass, or something that proves we’ve had our vaccinations, will become the norm as well. The virus is probably with us long term, and it’s about living with it.
Will Emirates insist its passengers are vaccinated?
The safety of our customers is predominant and all the actions we’ve taken to date have been about customer safety and the experience involved.
I think vaccination is probably a border or national issue… we can only legislate for our own aircraft. Once the passenger arrives in Sydney or Auckland or wherever, I think border controls will kick in then.
When we can travel again, will we see sales or higher prices?
I think it will be somewhere in the middle!
The aviation industry is battered and bruised. Customers don’t need to hear it, but that’s the reality. Having said that, to get things moving after 9/11, Aer Lingus and everybody else had the mother and father of all sales, and the business snapped back within a couple of months.
I think you will see sharp offers and sales, but you won’t see it long-term. I believe there will be a fairly quick snap back this time around... our approach in Ireland at the moment is to be very cognisant of public health advice. It’s much more about ‘we’re ready when you are’, rather than pushing out offers. We need to walk that fine line.
What might travel look like in future?
I think you will see people going on long-haul rather than a lot of short breaks. We’ve all loved our city breaks and skiing and all the rest of it, but I think that if there’s a holiday to be had, we’ll make it count.
We’ve all enjoyed staycations and we all love our country, but I think we also all miss that whoosh of warm air when the aircraft doors open at our destination. You can almost smell it!
People are afraid at the moment but there is pent-up demand and I think, with destinations opening and vaccinations becoming much more widespread, by the middle to the end of the year you’ll see things beginning to move.
But I think the way we travel, you know, going to football matches in the UK or shopping trips to New York or London, I’m not sure we’ll do as many of those until 2022 or 2023.
If older people are vaccinated first, could you see them taking off before others?
I could, absolutely. If you take the profile of ‘silver surfers’ – assume, for example, that they are retirees. First of all they have time; second of all they may have funds to be able to travel.
They will most likely have extended family living abroad, whether that’s in the US, Australia or New Zealand. I have an aunt, for example, who is 83 and for the past 15 years has spent the winter in Australia with my two cousins. This is the first winter she hasn’t gone, and she is dying to get going.
Our challenge is that, until those destinations and markets are open, we can’t fulfil that demand. Once Australia opens, I believe we’ll see huge demand emerging and we will have to ramp up our schedule mighty quickly to be able to fulfil it.
That’s a blocker that we have no control over at the moment.
Flights carry cargo, too. Passengers aren’t often aware of what's below in the hold with their wheelie cases – can you enlighten us?
We suspended operations on March 25 last year, but in less than a month were back flying cargo... it was so important in the early parts of the pandemic, when we were bringing a huge amount of PPE into Ireland.
Otherwise, we carry a lot of food, computer parts, a lot of pharma manufactured in Ireland. Vaccine traffic hasn’t really kicked in yet. The cargo piece has been able to keep supply chains open for Irish exporters in particular, and that’s been vital right the way through. As I’ve said many times, you just wouldn’t know what’s under the floor of the aircraft, it’s such a diverse mix!
When do you think travel will return to 2019 levels?
You can’t put that toothpaste [travel] back in the tube. That genie is out. People have a taste for it and I don’t know that we’re ever going to go back to no travel. It’s just how it’s going to look, and where are people going to go...
I may be way off, but I would be optimistic to maybe get back to 70pc of 2019 [traffic levels] by next year.
If nothing goes off the rails this year, and we get the population vaccinated, and many countries do the same by the end of the year, I think we could see the beginnings of normal booking activity next January for summer of 2022.
NB: This interview was edited for length and clarity.