‘Terminal illness’ and dangers of flying into war clouds

Holidaying hordes shuffling through airport terminals signal that normalcy is returning to the travel world

By Chidanand Rajghatta

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Published: Wed 13 Apr 2022, 11:35 PM

Airports -- and other transportation terminals across the world -- are humming with activity again. Whether it is from the belief that the coronavirus pandemic has passed, or from home-bound fatigue, ennui, and cabin fever it caused among itinerants, travel is ticking up again across the world.

On a recent trip to Chicago, whose O’Hare airport is among the busiest in the world, your columnist was both dismayed and delighted by holidaying hordes shuffling through concourses and security gates during spring break, signalling that normalcy is returning to the travel world notwithstanding war clouds over parts of the globe.

British journalist Dennis Potter once said he understood the dreaded expression ‘’terminal illness’’ only after he saw Heathrow - and mind you, the gigantic Terminal 5 hadn’t even been built when he took this swipe at the aerial gateway to or through London. Hell, the humorist Dave Barry observed, is Concourse D of Chicago’s 0’Hare Airport, till 2005 the world’s busiest airport in terms of take-offs and landings. But the mother of all airports is Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, which, as the world’s busiest airport for the longest time in terms of passenger footfall, has more the feel of a ‘mela’ or country fair than an airport.

It turns out that almost unnoticed by hoi polloi, Baiyun International Airport in Guangzhou, China had in 2020 knocked off Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson from the Number One perch it occupied for an uninterrupted 22 years. But in the 2021 rankings released recently by trade association Airports Council International, Atlanta is back on top, with 75.7 million passengers rolling through it.

That figure is up a whopping 76 per cent from 2020 but still nearly 32 per cent below pre-pandemic 2019 figures. Guangzhou, which is currently going through another pandemic-induced shutdown, will doubtless catch up in due course. But for now, eight of the top ten busiest airports are in America, with Guangzhou at #8 and Chengdu at #9 the only exceptions, attesting to the fact (or belief) that America believes it is over the Covid hump.

The interesting thing is that while the busiest airports in the world in terms of overall passenger footfall are mostly in the United States, if you take only INTERNATIONAL passengers, then no American airport features in the 2021 top ten. In this list, Dubai comes in at No.1, with 29 million passengers, despite a 60 per cent drop from 2019, followed by Istanbul in second position. Doha, Qatar, too features in the top ten at #6. This suggests that while American airports cater substantially to domestic traffic, airports in the Gulf and in Europe, which has five airports in the top ten for international passengers footfall, are bigger transit hubs.

But who are all these people shuffling or stampeding through airports? According to a 2019 survey, roughly 12 per cent of all travel is business-related – and they are the real money-spinners, buying more expensive business class and high-end tickets. The rest for the most part are itinerant tourists and travellers, derisively referred to by corporate types and the snooty well-heeled as “cattle class” huddled at the back of the airplane. Conventional airline wisdom is that the former bring in the lolly; the latter make up the numbers.

Even so, the footfall of the latter is an important metric or indicator of the health of airlines, airports, and indeed countries. It is no secret that tourism generates jobs and lolly – for airlines, hotels, tour operators, to the folks selling souvenirs. By one account, one in five of all new jobs created worldwide come from the demands of tourism.

A recent survey showed that the majority of international tourists are from the United States, with China close behind. Germany, UK, and France rounded up the top five, followed by South Korea, Japan, Canada, Russia, and Taiwan. At the receiving end, France and Spain topped the list of tourist inflow, followed by the United States and China, Italy, Turkey, Mexico, Thailand, Germany, and UK.

While Covid-19 put a hex on both domestic and global travel, recovery was thought to depend on which country handled the pandemic best. But now there is the additional complication of war and its economic fallout in terms of oil prices and inflation. Crisis-ridden economies and depreciating local currency could make some countries incredibly cheap to travel but social unrest and shortage of essential items are dampeners. Airfares have also gone through the roof.

Sri Lanka is finding out the hard way that excessive dependency on travel and tourism can be fraught, with dangers coming from both internal civil war and external conflict; a large percentage of its tourists were from Russia and Ukraine. Every country in the world should be looking to diversify its economy as much as possible, seeking to protect itself from external and internal shocks, whether from war or pestilence. That very busy airport could empty out in a flash for reasons beyond one’s control.

— The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington

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