UAE. Dubai Duty Free, the world’s largest single airport retailer is to close temporarily from Wednesday 25 March due to the suspension of all international traffic to, from, and through (transit) the UAE for two weeks.

Like Dubai International (DXB), Abu Dhabi International Airport and all its commercial operations will be similarly affected.

Dubai Duty Free Executive Vice Chairman and CEO Colm McLoughlin confirmed the shutdown to The Moodie Davitt Report in a phone call this evening Dubai time.

McLoughlin said the air traffic closure was the correct decision, one made in line with (and support) of the government’s position in protecting the UAE population from the COVID-19 outbreak. He said that Dubai Duty Free would be writing to all its staff and advising them of how the company planned to deal with the situation.

Emirates and Etihad slash flights

Yesterday, Emirates Airline announced the suspension of most of passenger flights from 25 March in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Emirates Group Chairman and Chief Executive HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum said: “The world has literally gone into quarantine due to the COVID-19 outbreak. This is an unprecedented crisis situation in terms of breadth and scale: geographically, as well as from a health, social, and economic standpoint. Until January 2020, the Emirates Group was doing well against our current financial year targets. But COVID-19 has brought all that to a sudden and painful halt over the past six weeks.”

Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways further reduced services across its network from 22 March, with suspensions to and from key destinations. The airline suspended flights to the vital Indian market for the coming week initially. That includes Delhi and Mumbai (22-29 March) and Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Cochin, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Kozhikide and Trivandrum (22-28 March).

Other suspensions (most of which run to 30 April) include Baku, Minsk, Brussels, Chengdu, Shanghai, Cairo, Hong Kong (to 30 June), Rome, Milan, Nagoya (to 30 June), Nairobi, Amman, Beirut, Kuwait, Casablanca, Lagos (to 23 April), Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad (to 4 April), Moscow, Riyadh, Jeddah, Amman, Medina, Belgrade, Madrid, Barcelona, Khartoum, Geneva, Zürich and Istanbul.

Etihad Aviation Group Group Chief Executive Officer Tony Douglas commented: “These are unprecedented times and unprecedented decisions are being made by governments, authorities and companies, including Etihad, to contain the spread of the coronavirus and to help minimise its effects around the world.”

Podcast Interview conducted on 20 March: In Crisis – Travel Retail Voices: Dubai Duty Free’s Colm McLoughlin on COVID-19

UAE. Welcome to In Crisis – Travel Retail Voices: a new Podcast series where we speak to members of the travel retail community all around the world to examine how they, their businesses and even their families are coping with the COVID-19 crisis.

In a remarkable 50 year career in travel retail, both in his native Ireland and since 1983 in Dubai, Colm McLoughlin has seen various global and regional crises, some – like the two Gulf Wars and the SARS outbreak of 2003 – very serious indeed. But even the supremo of the world’s biggest single retailer airport duty free business, Dubai Duty Free, admits he has not seen anything like this before.

[Click on the icon to hear the full Colm McLoughlin interview]

Executive Vice Chairman & CEO McLoughlin said that Dubai Duty Free’s business had been up AED22 million (US$5.9 million) year-on-year for January, but is now down by AED200 million (US$53.6 million) for the year to date.

For the first 19 days of March, sales slumped -43% year-on-year and judging by impending developments in Dubai, things are about to get much worse.

Giving the view from Dubai, McLoughlin says: “Our only traffic through Dubai Airport right now is transit traffic. In conjunction with many things, we have closed our Irish Village at the Parks & Resorts. Today we are closing our arrivals.

“There is a discussion going on at the airport about the possibility of closing Concourse A, which would mean our duty free would cease to operate. There has been a tremendous effect, but all these decisions are, in my opinion, correct to help us get over this period of time.”

Speaking about some of the logistical challenges, McLoughlin said: “We have 1,500 of our staff on holiday at present; 500 of them are overseas and one of the latest government rules is that there is no entry allowed into Dubai, except returning UAE nationals, at the present time.”

Commenting on how the impact of COVID-19 compares to past crises, he added: “I keep on reading that this is worse than anything before and, on our business, it does seem to have had a bigger effect on us than anything before. The [easing Chinese outbreak] figures coming in suggest that it won’t be long term, but nobody can say for sure at the moment.”

He added: “We are trying our best, looking forward to things coming right and then we are all looking forward to a time when the whole team can bounce back to where we were before.”