Emirates airline President Tim Clark believes it will be summer of 2021 before air travel sees a definite improvement. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Dubai: A marked improvement in air travel might need to wait until summer of 2021, according to Emirates airline’s President.

“We will start to see an uptick, quite a large uptick in demand," Tim Clark said, adding that Emirates would be able to get its fleet ready within 48 hours if it had to.

"I think probably by the year 2022-23, 2023-24 we will see things coming back to some degree of normality and Emirates will be operating its network as it was - and hopefully as successfully as it was."

The airline was flying to 157 destinations in 83 countries before it grounded passenger flights in March and has since operated limited services. Emirates has warned that the current period would be the most difficult in its 35-year history, and on Sunday said it had made some staff redundant due to the impact of the pandemic.

Clark, who is to become an adviser to the airline this month when he steps down as president, said physical distancing on planes was not economically and environmentally practical because it would mean flying aircraft half empty. Emirates will for now continue to ask passengers to wear gloves and face masks onboard, he told Reuters.

And he does not believe “corporate travel will diminish”.

Uncertainty on orders
Emirates said it's unable to commit to outstanding aircraft orders in light of the coronavirus crisis, casting doubt over a backlog worth tens of billions of dollars.

"All bets are off," Tim Clark, the carrier's president, said in an online forum. "We are nowhere near confident enough that the economics, the cashflows, the bottom-line will put us in a good position to be able to guess if we'll buy a hundred of this or a hundred of that."

Emirates has unfilled orders for more than 200 jets at the end of March, comprising Boeing 777s and 787s, Airbus A350s, and the last few A380 superjumbos. Grounding existing aircraft is not always an option since they may be encumbered by leases and other debt, and the carrier's focus is on getting those planes flying again, Clark said.

Aircraft manufacturers are aware that airlines have to "keep cash where it needs to be" and have understand that they may need to push back or even cancel orders, Clark said in the Arabian Travel Market webinar. "This is about surviving the present."