Coronavirus-related restrictions on UK-UAE air travel routes will be eased further next month as part of an overhaul of Britain’s controversial traffic light system.
The announcement by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps coincided with the official visit of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to the UK during which it was announced that the UAE will invest nearly $14 billion in key sectors of the British economy.
The UAE breathed a collective sigh of relief as it was taken off the British red list. But what’s next for one of the world’s busiest air routes?
The UAE was initially put on the UK’s travel red list on January 29, meaning that all UK arrivals must quarantine in a government-mandated hotel for 10 days.
After 188 days, the UAE was moved to the amber list, meaning visitors who are not fully vaccinated need to self-isolate for 10 days.
But on Friday, in a further easing of travel rules, the UK removed the amber list altogether, enabling the UAE to move to its new non-red list.
Shapps said in a series of tweets: “We’re making testing easier for travel. From October 4 at 4am, if you’re fully vax you won’t need a pre-departure test before arrival into England from a non-red country and from later in Oct, will be able to replace the day 2 PCR test with a cheaper lateral flow.
“In addition, eight countries and territories will come off the red list Red circle from Sept 22 at 4am, including Turkey, Pakistan and the Maldives.” Oman and Egypt have also been removed.
He added: “We’ll also be introducing a new simplified system for international travel from Oct 4, replacing the current approach with a single red list and simplified measures for the rest of the world – striking the right balance to manage the public health risk as No.1 priority.”
In the week following the announcement of the UAE’s promotion to the UK amber travel list in August, flight bookings between the two countries rose to over 30 percent of pre-pandemic levels and the latest decision is likely to boost travel bookings further.
But according to John Grant (pictured below), partner at aviation analysis firm Midas Aviation, it may not lead to a full recovery.
He told Arabian Business: “Sadly I don’t think this will be the final push to a recovery, corporate demand remains limited with no real expectations of a pick-up for the next few months as companies grapple with issues such as duty of care to employees and the cost of travel for budgets that have been decimated over the last eighteen months.
“It is certainly a step in the right direction and if PCR testing on return to the UK is removed that will certainly help although a lateral flow test is still likely to be around £30 per passenger.”
He added: “It is unlikely to lead to any increases in capacity from airlines operating to the UK since many flights are operating with very low load factors at the moment. For both Emirates and Etihad the absence of any connecting traffic from South East Asia or Australia remains a barrier to adding new capacity although Australia is finally making some positive noises for a December reopening.
“All of this makes a return to 2019 levels still some way off, probably not before the second half of 2023 at the earliest I am afraid to say; but every small step forward at the moment is a welcome development; however late in the day it happens.”
Andrew Charlton (pictured below), founder of Aviation Advocacy, told Arabian Business: “I am surely not the only one that sees this as a cynical move on the part of the UK? Will it help the traffic? Of course. We have seen countless times now that as restrictions come down, traffic goes up.
“But in aviation and in Gulf aviation in particular, everything is connected. UK-UAE traffic is not the same as the traffic Emirates and Etihad carry overall, which used to include traffic to and from Asia, Australia and Africa, most of which are still quite restricted. Gulf-UK will almost certainly go up, for the moment.”
He added: “But nothing is written in stone and as breakout infections rise and as other variants loom, it is possible to imagine a less than totally rosy future. That said, it is also possible to imagine a more optimistic scenario too. The measure we actually need to monitor is the ‘living with the virus-o-metre’, because that will tell us what happens next.”
Asked if the UK Government’s move would mean business as usual for the UK-UAE air route, a spokesperson for aviation analysts Strat Aero Research told Arabian Business: “To a degree yes, however, demand for business travel will remain weak as folks still work from home or remotely. What business travel there is, is likely to be discounted to entice travellers.
He said that Emirates and Etihad will “enjoy the spoils” as both have numerous A380s and 787s respectively to add more seats.
“And that both UAE airlines operate to more airports in the UK than BA does, they’ll reach more customers too,” he added.
However, the spokesperson did not see air traffic returning to 2019 levels in the short-term.
New data reveals flight bookings between the two countries rose to over 30% of pre-pandemic levels, a significant increase
“With a distinct possibility of a winter lockdown or some form of social restrictions, traffic levels seen in 2019 will be years off. Don’t expect that to change.”
He added: “In a perfect world, this would be getting back to normal. But all it takes is one new covid variant to emerge and spread and all bets are off.”
Emirates and Etihad have previously revealed plans to ramp up their UK operations while British Airways has resumed its once-daily flights from London to Dubai for the first time since January.
Emirates announced it would be operating 73 weekly flights into the UK by October while Etihad Airways has rescheduled three daily flights to London’s Heathrow and once daily to Manchester.
Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports, had previously urged the UK Government to look again at the UAE’s travel status while Issam Kazim, CEO of Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing in August welcomed the UAE’s move to the amber list.
On Friday, Clive Wratten, CEO of the Business Travel Association, said: “We are delighted that the Government has finally simplified the restrictions around international travel.
“It is imperative that there is no more yo-yoing nor re-introduction of unnecessary regulations. Safe travel is essential for our economy and position as a truly global Britain.”We ask the Government to now lead the way in establishing international protocols that safeguard the future of the travel industry. It is only once all countries have the confidence to open their borders that our industry can truly recover.”