Why aviation sectors need to confront Covid-19, not hide from it
August 05 2020 07:10 PM
Alex Macheras
Alex Macheras

By Alex Macheras

The global air travel sector has always been vulnerable to an almost endless list of external challenges. Extreme weather, geopolitical disputes, trade tensions, or a sudden volcanic ash cloud…crises are part of the airline world. However this current one, Covid-19, is most severe in the history of the very concept of flight.

If there’s one certainty in a sky now overcast with uncertainty, it’s that while the recovery of aviation will be slow, turbulent and uneven for the entire global sector as a whole, governments have the ability to determine, outline and implement a ‘new normal’ for air travel focused on health protection measures to drive down the risk of Covid-19.

The initial goal? To ensure that Covid-19 and air travel can, as safely as possible, coexist in a world so accustomed to flying, one that’s reliant on flight for more than just using it as transportation to a holiday destination. Without recognising that the two must be able to coexist with the implementation of health protection measures countries will further damage to their aviation industries if they continue to hope that this ‘will all go away’ rather than confront Covid-19 in a similar way aviation was able to confront, and then act on the security concerns that followed the tragedy of 9/11.

Harmonisation in aviation is key, we’re perhaps the most global of global sectors, but currently the world can be split into those throwing as many health protection measures as possible at their air travel sectors in order to force down the coronavirus associated risks, and those who continue the bury head in the sand approach.

Testing passengers for Covid-19. It’s invasive, uncomfortable, requires on-site medics and a system typically reserved for health services…but it’s emerged as one of the few strategic options available to airlines. Hong Kong, Japan, and Greece were testing every single passenger arrival from the moment the World Health Organisation upgraded Covid-19 from ‘global health emergency’ to ‘pandemic’ status in mid-March.

Lebanon, Cyprus, Rwanda, Seychelles and Russia now require most passengers to test negative before the travel to the country, around 72 hours prior to the flight). Many of these countries then require passengers t test negative again on arrival — the theory behind it? Two tests, two chances of catching a coronavirus case over the course of 5 days that involved air travel. Meanwhile, the risk level is driven down a little further.

Qatar is testing passengers on arrival, and then using its contact tracing app ‘Ehteraz’ (Arabic for ‘precaution’) to change the individual health status of the passenger arriving from abroad to the colour grey: Meaning “in quarantine”. With a week of home-isolation required following the test, the person wouldn’t be able to stray very far from home and enter a public place, such as a supermarket, with an “in quarantine” status on his app – as showing your Ehteraz status is required to enter all public places in the country.

With long quarantine periods for all simply unsustainable for the long-term, Iceland, Thailand, Ukraine, Finland and others are also testing passengers on arrival, requiring them to quarantine only for the time it takes to receive a negative test result by text.

Now, some airline CEOs are calling for testing to be implemented at their respective hubs, and all eyes are on a new South Korean test being trialled in Italy — one that could deliver a result in just 12 minutes.

As airlines look to restore passenger demand, it’s those that are focused on being part of the rebuild that are actively paving the way to recovery. But a mandatory mask policy, increased sanitisation of the aircraft cabin, and reduced onboard interactions between passengers and crew can only go so far if there isn’t a working passenger contact tracing system implemented on either end of the journey. Uncertainty is still looming over the long-term structure of the global market, and the lack of decision making at the top of several countries, plus their resistance to implement change will lead to one of the worst winter’s for aviation that the Northern Hemisphere will have ever faced.

This is the time for governments to outline a comprehensive air travel strategy that confronts Covid-19 and establishes how coexistence will work for the long-term through the implementation of health protection measures.

It’s not only in the best interest of a failing aviation sector, but of the general population.

Border controls and quarantine have become the norm since March, and by April over 90% of the world’s population were living in countries with restrictions on passengers arriving from abroad. The UK was considered the outlier — allowing over 20mn people to enter the country with no checks, no tests, no measures, and no quarantine. What followed was the country fast became the coronavirus hotspot of Europe, with the highest death toll of all European countries.

Now August, several hundred thousand school pupils returning from pandemic holidays overseas, plus over 400,000 international students will fly in to the UK over the coming weeks in what is expected to be the largest influx of population since March. Once again, they’ll enter a country with no air travel strategy in place. One with no tests for passengers, no airport measures, no screening, an unenforceable quarantine applicable only to arrivals from certain countries, and a passenger contact tracing system described as ‘simply unworkable’. This lack of air travel strategy needs to be remembered, should schools or universities be blamed for a ‘spike’ come September.

*The author is an aviation analyst.

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