The aviation industry, most severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, saw a dramatic recovery in the domestic market as passenger volume crossed that in the pre-pandemic period in February amid rising travels to tourist destinations across the country.
But, the resurgence of the virus from mid-March weighed on the air travel recovery progress as the dangerous turn of infections compelled the government to suspend domestic flight operations for seven days from 5 April due to the lockdown.
Though confidence grew among air travellers gradually, further tightening of the restrictions on people's movement to contain the spread of the virus weakened that confidence, said industry insiders.
The recent recovery data shows that the number of daily air travellers reached 8,362 in February, which was 17.22% higher than the pre-pandemic level of 7,133 in December 2019, according to data from the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB).
However, the number of daily flights was still low compared to the pre-pandemic level.
In February, 132 flights were operated on domestic routes daily on average while the figure was 137 in December 2019.
The number of total domestic air travellers was 2,34,142 in February this year, which was 6% higher than 2,21,123 in December 2019.
The local aviation industry was in a good shape towards recovery as the number of air travellers reached the pre-pandemic level, said Mofizur Rahman, managing director of Novoair, a domestic airline.
He said air operators were expanding routes and flight frequency to meet the rising demand. But, the resurgence of the virus and flight suspensions put the brakes on the recovery, he said.
As the aviation sector is the most-affected one by the pandemic, the government could consider keeping air travels out of suspension as air operators are maintaining all safety measures, he added.
All air operators in the country focused on the domestic market for recovery as the international market will take more time to recover amid travel restrictions, quarantines, and high ticket fares.
Though borders have opened, various safety measures prompted travellers to prefer travelling to domestic tourist spots.
The comeback of passengers prompted local air operators to introduce new domestic routes and offer tourist packages by joining hands with hotels in the tourist spots.
For instance, US-Bangla Airlines, the largest private air operator in the country, increased its number of daily flights to 36 on domestic routes in March from 27-28 amid rising demands for travel.
The rise of travellers prompted US-Bangla to offer summer tour packages with various hotels in Cox's Bazar, one of the big tourist centres in the country.
The rising domestic travels brought airlines on the recovery path slowly but the fresh restrictions took them back to the previous status, said Sikder Mezbahuddin Ahmed, adviser to US-Bangla.
It was difficult to grow confidence among travellers but now airlines will have to start from zero again, he said.
The fresh shock came at a time when US-Bangla added a new ATR 72-600 aircraft to its fleet with a plan to strengthen its domestic network.
The virus resurgence shock came at a time when Novoair increased its number of flights targeting the summer season. The airline increased its number of flights to 29 on 28 March from 25 amid rising air travels but within a week, it experienced the lockdown.
The airline was experiencing good recovery before the lockdown as the load factor improved above 85% on domestic routes, said Mes-bah-ul Islam, head of marketing and sales of Novoair.
The state-owned operator Biman Bangladesh Airlines introduced two new inter-connecting routes – Sylhet-Chattogram-Sylhet and Sylhet-Cox's Bazar-Sylhet – in March to increase its network amid rising demands for travel.
The carrier also reopened its Barishal and Jashore routes from Dhaka in March as it plans to increase the number of flights with its four new Dash-8 aircraft.
The number of average daily flights of the airline increased to 10 in March from seven due to the inclusion of the new routes, according to Biman.
The flight rate improved to 56% in March but further suspension foiled its business plan, said a senior executive of the national carrier.
The Bangladesh Bank in its latest survey ranked the aviation sector the third most-affected one in the pandemic. The growth rate of the sector tumbled to 4.61% last year from 6.37% in the previous year, according to the survey report.
A latest survey revealed in March by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) found that people are becoming more confident to travel. Those expecting to travel within a few months of "Covid-19 containment" now account for 57% of the survey respondents, up from 49% in September 2020.
This is supported by the vaccine rollout which indicates that 81% of the people will be more likely to travel once vaccinated. And 72% of the respondents want to travel as soon as possible after Covid-19 is contained to see friends and families, according to the survey.
A total of 4,700 interviews were conducted online in 11 markets between 15 and 23 February 2021 for the survey.
However, the resurgence of the virus led to renewed concerns over rising unemployment and falling earnings.
Given these concerns, consumers will remain cautious about their personal finances and future expenses, including spending on air travel, in the near-term, said IATA.