Domestic air travel has made a robust turnaround – surpassing the pre-pandemic level, but international flight operation is still down as borders reopened with a lot of conditions causing hassle for passengers.
The number of domestic air travellers doubled to 12.61 lakh in the first eight months of the current year, while incoming-outgoing international passengers grew by only 7% in Bangladesh, according to the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB).
The number of daily flights on domestic routes reached the highest-ever 160 from 120 in the pre-Covid level whereas 70 flights are now being operated on international routes, down from 100-110 in pre-Covid times.
Moreover, air travellers who are fully vaccinated can cross borders. In Bangladesh, the vaccination rate is only around 3.8%, while the global rate is 35%.
Although international borders are gradually reopening after vaccination started to roll out, travelling abroad is still very difficult owing to onerous paperwork for Covid-19 risk management. Besides, high testing costs have been stalling air travel recovery and damaging international connectivity.
In a recent trip to Switzerland and Italy, this reporter had to submit at least five additional documents related to Covid-19 risk management.
Moreover, a passenger will have to show these documents at least at eight points for verification – from entering the Bangladesh airport to reaching the destination country.
The additional travel documents for risk management are vaccination certificate, Covid-19 negative test report, health declaration form, contact tracing form for airlines and online entry form of destination countries.
Moreover, travel is uncertain even after being vaccinated as passengers must have a Covid-19 test taken 72 hours before travel. If the report comes out positive, their travel will be cancelled and will lose air ticket money too.
In Bangladesh, the testing cost for travelling is very high – around Tk2,500 to Tk3,000. While returning from destination countries, the cost is higher as in Switzerland, it costs 95 Swiss Franc equivalent to Tk8,700 and in Italy, it costs 69 Euro equivalent to Tk6,800.
A survey conducted by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), in the first week of this month found that people want to travel.
According to survey findings, 86% expect to be traveling within six months of the crisis ending.
People also say they are confident to travel. But what those who have travelled are telling is that the rules are too complex and the paperwork too onerous. To secure the recovery, governments need to simplify processes, restore the freedom to travel and adopt digital solutions to issue and manage travel health credentials, according to the IATA.
In a survey, IATA found that 75% of respondents indicated that the cost of testing is a significant barrier to travel when 80% believe that governments should bear the cost of testing.
"There is a message here for governments. People are willing to be tested to travel. But they do not like the cost or the inconvenience. Both can be addressed by governments," said IATA.
"People are increasingly frustrated with the Covid-19 travel restrictions and even more have seen their quality of life suffer as a result. They do not see the necessity of travel restrictions to control the virus. And they have missed too many family moments, personal development opportunities and business priorities. In short, they miss the freedom of flying and want it restored," the association said.
As the global vaccination rate is rising, more countries are gradually reopening their borders.
In September, several key markets that had previously been closed have taken steps to open to vaccinated travellers. Among markets that were previously closed, Europe was an early mover, followed by Canada, the UK, the US and Singapore. Even Australia, which has some of the most draconian restrictions, is taking steps to reopen its borders to vaccinated travellers by November.
India has already resumed flight operations with Bangladesh from last month under the air bubble agreement. The borders of Middle Eastern countries and Nepal and Maldives also reopened.
With the reopening of borders, local airlines are opening up their arms, adding new international and domestic routes.
Biman Bangladesh Airlines resumed flights on almost all routes in Middle Eastern countries and other international routes, including Delhi, Kolkata and Kathmandu from September.
It also introduced a new domestic inter-connecting route – Saidpur-Cox's Bazar-Saidpur.
The state-run airline started direct flights on this new route from 28 September.
Biman resumed all international routes that were suspended during the Covid crisis, but the number of passengers did not reach the expected level, said Abu Saleh Mostafa Kamal.
However, as the fleet came back to fly, the company's operational loss started to reduce, he also said.
Biman is now planning to introduce new international routes in Toronto by November, Japan and New York, he added.
The aviation industry will be vibrant soon after Covid restrictions are lifted in destination countries.
US-Bangla, the largest private airline in the country, announced a plan to introduce flight operations in Male, the capital of Maldives from November.
The airline has already resumed flight operations on almost all international routes. It also opened flights on new domestic routes - Saidpur-Cox's Bazar-Saidpur in September and Jashore-Cox's Bazar in October.
When contacted, Kamrul Islam, general manager and spokesperson of US-Bangla Airlines said the passenger carrying ratio improved to 70%-80% on domestic routes, while the ratio is still very low on international routes owing to various travel restrictions in destination countries.
Mofizur Rahman, managing director of Novoair, which operates mostly domestic flights, said their flight operation returned to the pre-covid level and the number of passengers also reached the 2019 level.
The airline still has a loss of Tk150 crore but is now recouping losses following the resumption of air operation.
The IATA has recently announced its latest outlook for airline industry financial performance, showing improved results amid the continuing Covid-19 crisis.
Net industry losses are expected to reduce to $11.6 billion in 2022 after a $51.8 billion loss in 2021 - worsened from the $47.7 billion loss estimated in April.
Total passenger numbers are expected to reach 2.3 billion in 2021. It will grow to 3.4 billion in 2022 – similar to 2014 levels and significantly below the 4.5 billion travellers of 2019.
Robust demand for air cargo is expected to continue with 2021 demand at 7.9% above 2019 levels, growing to 13.2% above 2019 levels for 2022.