Stock India airport passengers
There has been some improvement in demand for travel from India to the UAE. But recent restrictions imposed by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on transiting travelers has bit into that demand as well. Image Credit: PTI

Dubai: Demand for flights on the UAE-India route are running at 25-30 per cent of levels seen before the pandemic brought a complete disruption to services. This is even though ticket rates on this sector is still easily available in the Dh300-Dh700 range.

The main reason why demand is being held back is because of the quarantine measures several of the Indian destinations still have in place. Traditional high-frequency routes such as Dubai-Mumbai are among those impacted by such requirements on passengers.

India “needs to open [air] borders and right now we are only seeing ‘air bubble’ agreements,” said Amit Taneja, Chief Commercial Officer at Cleartrip, a leading online booking platform in India. “But there are still restrictions around quarantines and so forth.” (Air bubbles are temporary arrangements between countries to allow flights after COVID-19 broke out.)

Will health passports help?

Leading airlines in the UAE and elsewhere are expected to bring out the ‘digital passports’ within weeks. These provide up-to-date information on the flier’s health credentials related to COVID-19, and are provided to the airport authorities and airlines in advance. Brought out by IATA (International Air Transport Association), these digital passports are expected to smooth out the time required to go through the needed requirements before taking a seat in a flight.

India suspended all incoming and outgoing international flights as well as domestic air travel in March 2020 as part of one of the toughest lockdown measures to combat COVID-19. Flights to and from India have since resumed in a phased manner to about 20 plus countries under air bubbles agreements.

There are some slight improvements being seen, and which UAE and Indian airlines can try and build on. “Bookings from India to the UAE are increasing - earlier it used to be all one-way traffic to India,” said Taneja.

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Interest is there

As per Cleartrip’s recent survey, around 72 per cent of UAE - and Saudi - residents are ready to travel within the next six months under safety measures, while 16 per cent of respondents are comfortable travelling only once they get vaccinated.

Nearly 65 per cent of respondents identified confidence boosting measures such as safe travel enablers and lower rates of COVID-19 cases as key considerations when planning their travel.

Expo demand

Cleartrip’s Taneja believes that the upcoming Expo in Dubai will further boost travel on India-UAE routes. The event is “well-publicized” in India and the enthusiasm surrounding the event is not going to change, said Taneja. “I am pretty confident that Expo will become one of the reasons for people to travel.”

However, given the uncertainty in the aviation market, passengers are leaving all such travel decisions up until the last minute. “People are not booking in advance and rightly so - there's still a lot of uncertainty, nobody can know what the virus situation will be like by October,” said Taneja. “But, generally there is optimism given the vaccination rollout in both countries… and around the globe.”

Corporate travel

One category that will not have it easy is business travel, which has been hit hard by the pandemic as many companies consider all such trips to be non-essential. Virtual platforms like Zoom and Teams have also entered the space.

“I don't think corporate travel will come back to normal – the pandemic has shown businesses that you can manage remote teams (and) remote clients, without having to physically visit them,” said Taneja.