This is How Migration is Reshaping Air Transport

Millions of people are fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine, as well as persecution in areas of Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Why are people fleeing? Where are they going? How are host countries responding?Fleeing war-torn lands in search of safer, better lives, people have been leaving their native countries. A total of 9.6 million migrants fled the Middle East as of the end of 2015, up from 4.2 million in 2005 – a nearly 130% increase. This increase in emigration waves has been fuelled by arising conflicts mainly in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan creating the highest level of displacement since World War II. Worldwide migration pressures are expected to increase with the rise of war zones and demographic and economic differences between developed and developing countries. These waves of humanity will shape the future character of host countries.

Clearly, migration has major economic and policy implications for both the sending and receiving countries. Emigrants play a significant role in the social and economic development of their countries of origin through investment projects, remittances and transfers of knowledge and skills. Transportation has also been a factor influencing migration patterns. Technology and institutional changes in air transportation specifically would seem to be having an impact on longer labour movements, just as the advent of steamships and railways did in the nineteenth century. The latest 21st century migration flows from the South to the North have been principally fuelled by reduced transport and communications costs, making it easier for people to move back and forth.

Low Mobility Costs

The developments in air transportation technology and the shift in the way its regulation is viewed have reduced mobility costs for certain markets, and in that way have facilitated migration and created easier accessibility to original locations to visit kith and kin and for the latter to visit migrants. Many airlines, specifically low cost carriers, have adapted their business models to cater for ethnic travellers, or what is widely known as visiting friends and relatives “VFR”, because of the relative reliability and predictability pattern of their demands. An example is the considerable increase of service growth between Poland and UK. Since the admission of Poland to the European Union in 2004, around 465,000 Polish workers have migrated to UK. The volume of scheduled services between UK and Poland grew from 5 in 2000 to 27 in 2006. Moreover, Luton and Stansted, UK’s two primarily low cost airports, witnessed a huge increase in VFR traffic, which grew by 198% over the period of 2000 to 2005 to become the largest single component of inbound traffic.

Another example of the air transport-assisted migration concept is Qatar, where air transport plays a vital role in connecting the huge foreign labour communities with their home country. According to World Bank reports, Qatar tops other countries worldwide in terms of the percentage of immigrants to population, which is estimated to be 86.5%. India is the biggest source of labour in Qatar, and a large number of businesses in the country are owned or run by Indians. As in the case of other migration data, the true number of Indians living in Qatar is not reported. However, unofficial estimates provided by the Indian diplomatic mission in Qatar estimate the number to be nearly 400,000. Currently, Qatar Airways, the national carrier, runs 111 weekly flights to 12 destinations in India to cater for the travel needs of the big Indian community living there. While the number of scheduled seats offered by all operators flying between Qatar and India grew by 19% from 2009 to 2014, it is expected to grow even more in the coming years. The government of Qatar appears determined to boost its intake of foreign workers in an anticipated construction boom to prepare for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, in what could come as a boon to Indian migrants.

Distance Matters

The distance involved and the income of the migrants are to be considered as crucial factors in determining the role of transportation in carrying migrants. The two world’s largest single corridors for migration are Mexico to the US and Bangladesh to India. These two passages are mainly served by surface transport due to geographical proximity. In cases of movements between developing and higher income countries, there may be more scope for mobility of migration through the use of air transportation.

Air travel connects communities, and in many cases air routes are considered as “life lines” for remote destinations. Looking into the world’s top five migration corridors and the number of departures between host and home countries emphasizes the contribution of air transport as a competitive mode of transport in ensuring the connectivity between host and home countries. 

World Top 5 Migration Corridors* vs. Number of Departures by Destination

1: Turkey to Germany

  • 2.7 million immigrants

  • 342,200 departures

2: India to UAE

  • 2.2 million immigrants

  •  33,900 departures

3: Philippines to USA

  • 1.7 million immigrants

  • 133,000 departures

4: China to USA

  • 1.7 million immigrants

  • 802,600 departures

5: India to USA

  • 1.7 million immigrants

  • 572,500 departures

Source: The World Bank and Euromonitor*Excludes migration passages between countries which share common borders

Migration Trends

The share of migrants in the global population reached 3.3% in 2015, up from 2.8% in 2000. Trends in international migrant stock reveal that the number of international migrants has grown at a faster pace than the world’s population growth pace. However, there is significant variations among world regions. In Europe, for example, international migrants account for at least 10% of the total population (UN Population Division, 2015).

Number of Asylum Applications Lodged in 2015 by European Country


Source: UNHCR and Huffington Post

Based on international migration literature, there are different factors influencing return migration, most notably feelings of patriotism, social bonds with the home country and the absence of the ability to assimilate with the host society. In other cases, emigrants express their homeland ties through establishing migrant communities in host countries, acquiring houses or supporting political causes related to the country of origin and through frequent visits home.

The forecasts of the migration waves and the dispersion of migrants over European countries suggest that there will be an additional cause for the demand for air travel. This additional cause for demand of international air services is considered detrimental in shaping air transport connectivity in areas of conflict and war.

The European Union has been proactive in this regard. EU aviation policy gives emphasis to open skies agreements between the EU and strategic external partners. The Common Aviation Area (CAA) has been envisaged to allow gradual market opening between the EU and its neighbours linked with regulatory convergence through the gradual implementation of EU aviation rules to offer new opportunities for operators and wider choice for consumers. Agreements have been already signed with several neighbouring countries among which we mention the agreements concluded with Morocco, Jordan, Mission to Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina while negotiations are at an advanced stage with Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria and some progress has been made in discussions with Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Libya and the Gulf States which may potentially lead to the signature of new agreements.

The progress in the negotiation of agreements between the EU and third countries depends to a large extent on the willingness of the EU’s potential partners to deregulate their local market and remove limitations to the demand and supply for air transport. However, one definite impact of these agreements is that they play the role of vital lifelines for sustaining connectivity between emigrants’ host and home countries.

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Other articles by Nadine Itani Open Skies: Invite to Complain or Compete!

Related Resources The Impacts of Globalisation on International Air Transport Activity (OECD, 2008) The impact of emigrants’ homeland relations on air travel demand in a security volatile market: a case study on Lebanon, research paper by author (paid) Civil Aviation Policy Development: a strategic planning approach, new book by author (paid)