Stock Emirates airlines aircraft
Working on air corridor deals, such as the recent one with the UK, will be how Emirates and Dubai script a rebound for its aviation and tourism industries. Image Credit: WAM

If there is one single industry on the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is the travel and tourism sector. The tally of destruction looks like this - $5.5 trillion of lost GDP and over half of the 330 million people dependent on travel could be displaced, representing 1 in 10 jobs worldwide, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

The damage is far-reaching and hitting airlines, aerospace suppliers, cruise lines, hotels and the supply change that supports them all. But progress on late stage vaccine development – especially by Pfizer and Moderna – is quickly shifting the conversation to breakthroughs that could deliver the silver bullet the world has been looking for.

There have been no shortage of protocols including mandatory mask requirements in some countries, track and trace, social distancing and PCR testing. But still cases are spiking in the western half of the world.

Read More

Scale up from get-go

In an interview overlooking Dubai International Airport’s runways, Sir Tim Clark, the long-serving President of Emirates Airline, said there is no other way out of the pandemic.

“They (the vaccines) have to be the silver bullet. It's absolutely vital that we roll these out at scale, at speed, and get them administered as quickly as possible. Only then will we get ourselves through this.”

Sir Tim postponed retirement plans to support what can be called a flight plan to recovery. Emirates, like the scores of other carriers from Asia to the Americas, has been decimated by the current pandemic, reporting a half-year loss of $3.8 billion.

Tim Clark
Sir Tim Clark of Emirates Group reckons that with a vaccine finally on the radar, a turnaround for airlines can be speeded up. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

More upbeat forecasts

With the prospect of a vaccine rollout, which he believes will take a least six to nine months to accomplish, Emirates could be profitable by 2022, a stark contrast to his comments last spring when he talked of dark times remaining in the industry until 2023 if not longer.

“I would think that during the first quarter, first-half, the first six months of '22, you'll see a lot of this coming back. And looking at all the segments that I know are deeply suppressed, they will bounce back as they always have done.”

Sir Tim, like many others, said it is time for a collective approach to worldwide vaccine distribution, with a special nod to the developing world, which can least afford it. He put it in the context of fair and equitable distribution.

“The entities that have a degree of global control, whether it be the World Health Organization, whether it be the G7, et cetera, they need to address that and not just decide that the West will hog 80 per cent of the vaccines and let the rest go somewhere else and take their chances,” said Sir Tim. “That's not smart.”

Dubai is trying to use its market intelligence and infrastructure to capitalize on the need for global distribution. With two large-scale airports, cold storage operations and more than 130 destinations back on the route map - albeit with greatly reduced capacity - the emirate is in talks with the major vaccine producers to serve as a logistics hub for the markets.

Being a bridge

The emirates built its reputation as an air bridge between East and West, especially in South Asia, Africa and the broader Middle East.

“I think we are better positioned as a carrier,” he said. “I think we are better positioned as a hub to deal with the scale of things. I'm not sure there are many that really equal us in this part of the world certainly… between the East and the West’s major population centers.”

From the very beginning of this pandemic, Emirates did not wait for clearance from global organizations or trade bodies to adopt it policies and test the limits in response to the crisis. It was one of the first global carriers to take to the skies in May with hopes of rebuilding the tourism sector for Dubai.

At the time, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Chairman and CEO of Emirates, told me it was a “calculated risk”, which also allowed the group to help establish new protocols for the sector. That initial effort was followed up by the recent announcement to establish an air corridor between Dubai and London that sets like-minded policies for COVID-19 testing and self-isolation.

Sources within Emirates airline said there is more to come soon as they work through government-to-government clearances.

From regional wars, SARS, Ebola, a global financial crisis and COVID-19, Dubai has had to move swiftly to because it is highly dependent on tourism, trade, events and financial services in the absence of oil wealth which largely sits next door in Abu Dhabi.

“We've always had to react very quickly, very positively, and we've had to do it our own way,” said Sir Tim. “And with this pandemic, there are no manuals that you can get off the shelf and say, do it this way, do it that way.”

- John Defterios is Emerging Markets Editor at CNN Business.