I love people watching, especially families coming together at Christmas time. Walking through the lounge, checking on our teams and helping where needed, I loved to watch families greeting each other at the gate. I would see grandchildren rush through the gate to be scooped up in the soft arms, sloppy kisses, and wide smiles of their grand parents. I would see adult siblings bringing their families together, fussing over each other’s children and warmly embracing their extended family. Little cousins’ butterfly kisses. Sometimes we would see large migrant families come together, small boys dressed in smart but slightly too big suits and little girls in bright dresses. Welcoming the latest members of their extended family to a safer, more hopeful life in Australia.
From time to time I would have to look away to avoid being caught up in the sentimentality of it all.
And I think this is one of the things we all have loved about working in aviation. We have truly made a difference in people’s lives. We have brought loved ones together. We have packed people off on their grandest adventures or in pursuit of their brightest opportunities. We have helped console children and comfort the elderly. We have poured a wine for the weary business traveller and shared a warm joke and smile to break through the stress and solitude. We have hugged – though we probably shouldn’t have. We have cried a little when no one could see. We have spent our own money to solve a passenger’s small problem. We have let them know that we care. What a privilege.
And now it seems that this, my favourite sector, is going to lead the recovery of aviation. After all, we are social creatures. We need to love and be loved. And after being locked away, after grappling with great change and uncertainty, one of our greatest needs is to come together again with those we love. The visiting friends and relatives sector is expected to be one of the earliest sectors to recommence travelling when restrictions ease.
IATA’s Economics Chart of 10 July talks of the beginning of Intra Europe recovery, and notes that the “pick-up in intra-Europe international flights had been supported by passengers travelling to visit friends and family, as well as holiday traffic associated with the peak summer period.”
Tourism Research Australia’s recent paper: Moving Forward, The role of domestic travel in Australia’s tourism recovery, also describes “the first stage in the recovery for overnight travel should be intrastate trips to visit friends and relatives (VFR) as people seek to reconnect with those most important in their life. When interstate borders reopen and domestic flights resume there should be a similar boost in interstate VFR travel.”
Additionally, the Australian Travel Monitor provided by YouGov, Week of 20 August, 2020, demonstrates that Australians’ greatest appetite for returning to travel is to see friends and relatives, with 63% of Australians saying they would feel comfortable to do this immediately, and 87% of Australians saying they would be comfortable to do this within a few months of easing of restrictions. Interestingly, Australians have also shown an increasing level of confidence about returning to flying immediately after restrictions are removed.
The visiting friends and relatives sector is now front and centre for aeronautical strategy development. While Australian attitudes to flying and travel in general have been quite fickle as monitored by YouGov, and while we know that business travel has changed for the next few years at least, Australian attitudes to spending time with friends and relatives have not changed. Time with the people we love is important to us. It always will be.
In terms of regional airport aeronautical strategy development this has some important implications. Airlines have traditionally looked to airports to provide intelligence about the airport’s local catchment community, however, the collection and analysis of primary research data about travel attitudes is currently subject to significant uncertainty. People just don’t KNOW when they will travel or why, or how much they will pay, or even if they will still have a job when restrictions ease. However, collecting information about various source markets based on information about friends and relatives is less subjective. Demonstrating strong social links to various capital city markets is not reliant upon current travel attitudes.
Of course it isn’t enough, but it is something. It is a start, and the recovery strategy is going to be made of many pieces. Nationally, for year ending March 2020, VFR visitors represented 34% of domestic overnight visitors. That’s important.
It’s also an important consideration from an airport ancillary revenue perspective, and when considering how to build confidence in passengers that air travel is safe. How does your airport need to adapt to best meet the needs of these travellers, and best drive cash flow for the airport?
It will be great when families again greet each other at the airport, with big smiles, wet faces and butterfly kisses. This is what we are all about. No matter how good the video conferencing, we still need each other. An annual 38 million VFR visitors are bottled up and waiting for the opportunity to reconnect with the people they love.
Love makes the world go around and maybe it will help us to get planes back in the air.
Avistra Aviation Consulting helps regional communities to drive economic and social growth through their airport infrastructure. With specialist knowledge on both aeronautical and non aeronautical business development and passenger and cargo business cases we work with airports, economic and tourism development bodies on both short and long term strategy.