Airlines are redesigning routes to meet changing passenger demand

Airlines are improving the importance of once marginalized destinations by redrawing route maps to focus on flights where demand remains highest after Covid-19.

Despite travel restrictions in some areas, people still travel to visit family or friends scattered across the globe, airline executives say, providing a resilient income stream.

With leisure and business travel diving on major transatlantic routes, carriers such as Virgin atlantic have tapped the demand for flights from the UK’s South Asian diaspora to places like Pakistan and India.

The British airline has also reported high demand for its flights to Lagos in Nigeria. These routes were 90% full, double the current industry average load factor.

This is in contrast to the jet-set image the company has cultivated as it flies passengers across the Atlantic to New York and sunny winter destinations such as Florida.

Before the pandemic, the carrier relied heavily on long-haul routes to the United States, which was one of its most profitable, accounting for up to 70% of the carrier’s carrying capacity.

But, with the US borders closed for much of the past year and the current ban on international travel for UK vacations, the airline has had to tear up its business model.

“We have had to completely change the way we work, be more agile and seize the opportunities that arise,” said Rikke Christensen, who leads network planning at Virgin Atlantic.

She added: “We had to do something to diversify our network strategy” and passengers traveling to visit friends and relatives – a segment known as VFR in the industry – have been “particularly resilient” .

Other airlines have also seen a shift in travel habits, which has led some executives to question the assumption that long-haul flights are more prone to the pandemic than shorter trips.

This winter, BA generated more than 50% of its passenger revenues on non-transatlantic long-haul routes. The transatlantic route was one of the most profitable before the crisis.

Luis Gallego, Managing Director of Owner BA IAG, said long-haul flights to South Asia, West Africa and Latin America had proven more resilient than those over the Atlantic, which fell between 15 and 20 percent of passenger revenue in the past six months.

“Conventional wisdom seems to be that long haul is the weakest segment right now, but that hasn’t been our experience,” said Gallego.

Air France and US carrier United Airlines have also been affected.

Air France was boosted by demand for flights to former French territories, while United launched new non-stop long-haul routes to cities in South Asia and Africa last fall.

Patrick Quayle, United Airlines’ vice president for international network and alliances, said the Chicago airline has long wanted to travel to Johannesburg, Lagos and Bangalore.

It has hubs in Chicago and near New York, with large immigrant populations, and travelers want to be able to visit friends and family in Africa and India without connecting across Europe.

“This is about implementing our business plan at a time when VFR travel is quite robust,” he said.

Quayle said the airline “absolutely” plans to maintain the routes when the pandemic subsides.

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