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If you thought international travel was rebounding quickly, you may need to think again

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With numerous nations now having done away with a lot of their day-to-day Covid rules and with more and more nations relaxing or discontinuing their travel restrictions, you could be forgiven for believing that everyone who has been missing international travel over the past two years is now booking trips like crazy. Apparently, however, that may not be the case.

I was fortunate enough to be able to do several international trips at various points of the pandemic and compared to the passenger numbers I was seeing then, the passenger numbers I’ve been seeing at major international airports of late have been making me think that international travel is swiftly getting back to pre-pandemic levels. Heathrow airport would disagree.

Heathrow Airport may not be the busiest airport in the world, but it’s still an incredibly important international hub that saw over 59m travelers pass through its doors in 2019. That makes it an airport that’s worth keeping an eye on when attempting to judge what international traveler sentiment is like.

Today, Heathrow unveiled its numbers for last month and things are not as rosy as I had expected them to be. In fact, things aren’t looking good at all.

According to the airport, overall passenger numbers for February 2022 are down 50% on pre-pandemic levels (only 2.8m passengers) and they’re even down 15% on the forecasted figures.

I must admit that I was surprised that Heathrow had expected passenger figures for February 2022 to be just 65% of pre-pandemic levels so the fact that they’re even lower than that is startling.

Keep in mind that these figures relate to a period before the lunatic in Moscow decided to march into a neighboring country with all guns blazing, so it should be safe to assume that what we’re seeing is a continuing reluctance, by a significant number of people, to travel internationally.

This is how Heathrow has explained the numbers:

Outbound leisure demand is recovering strongly and countries are starting to remove travel restrictions.  However demand from inbound leisure and business travel remains suppressed by the testing and quarantine requirements that are still in place in nearly two-thirds of the markets we serve.

As far as the short-term future goes, Heathrow appears to have mixed feelings.

The airport has said that while it hopes that more and more countries will remove their travel restrictions and testing requirements as the year progresses, higher fuel prices, longer flight times to destinations impacted by airspace closures, the war in Europe, and “the likelihood of new Variants of Concern” mean that passenger numbers will remain suppressed.

The summer months may provide a bit of a respite from the gloom and doom with Heathrow suggesting that “based on the strength of outbound leisure bookings being reported by airlines” the peak days in the summer holidays could see passenger number at up to 85% of pre-pandemic levels.

It would be great if that was to end up being the case, but the “summer holidays” generally only cover July and August so where will that leave passenger numbers for the rest of the year?

At the moment it’s hard to tell where passenger numbers will end up by the end of the year but with the world currently replacing one crisis with another, things aren’t looking great and those of us who had thought (hoped?) that we were seeing a strong resurgence in international travel may have to think again.

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  1. You are forgetting that a large part of Heathrow’s business is to/from the Far East and Australia/NZ which have been effectively closed. And a large part is to/from the USA which still maintains very tight travel restrictions. So it’s not surprising that demand is 50% of normal.

  2. With Putin taking Russia-US relations back to the 1960s, perhaps travel will revert to the 1960s “See America” days, when most American folk only travelled domestically. Hyperinflation is going to lead to budget cuts in consumer discretionary spending like we have not seen in 40+ years. The pandemic and the rise of Zoom and etc. has obsoleted many business travel requirements. Perhaps to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen – those trips are gone boys and they ain’t coming back.

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