The global air travel sector has always been vulnerable to an almost endless list of external challenges. Geopolitical disputes, extreme weather, trade tensions, or sudden volcanic ash clouds… crises are part of the airline world. However, this current one, Covid, is the 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 just how quickly recovery of the sector can resume if they outline and implement a ‘new normal’ for air travel focused on health protection measures to drive down the risk of Covid.
The current goal should be clear: to ensure that Covid and air travel can, as safely as possible, coexist in a world so accustomed to flying, a world that’s reliant on flight for more than just using it as transportation to a holiday destination.
Without recognising that the two, air travel and Covid, must be able to coexist by implementing health protection measures, countries will further damage their aviation industries if they continue to hope that this ‘will all go away’ rather than confront Covid in a similar way aviation was able to confront, and then successfully act on the security concerns that followed the tragedy of 9/11. It took some time, but eventually measures were implemented in a consistent, harmonised way that passengers adjusted to all over the world.
Harmonisation in aviation is key, the sector is 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 with a bury your head in the sand approach.
Testing passengers for Covid is invasive, uncomfortable, requires on-site medics and it’s a process typically associated with hospitals. But testing is working, and it has emerged as one of the few strategic options available to airlines desperately looking to build up passenger demand. Hong Kong, Japan, and Greece were testing every single passenger arrival from the moment the World Health Organisation upgraded Covid from ‘global health emergency’ to ‘pandemic’ status in mid-March.
Lebanon, Cyprus, Rwanda, Seychelles and Russia now require most passengers to test negative before they travel to the country (around 72 hours prior to the flight). Many of these countries then require passengers to test negative again on arrival. The theory behind it? Two tests mean two chances of finding a coronavirus case over the course of a 5 day period that involved passenger air travel. At the same time, the overall risk level is driven down a little further.
With long quarantine periods for all simply unsustainable for the long-term (and unthinkable for business travel) Iceland, Thailand, Ukraine, Finland and several other countries are testing passengers on arrival, requiring them to quarantine only for the time it takes to receive a negative test result by text. Their respective health authorities recognise there will be some asymptomatic cases that slip through the net, “but that’s with any testing regime” a minister tells me, from Helsinki.
Now, many major airline CEOs are calling for testing to be implemented at their respective hubs, meanwhile, all eyes are on new, rapid tests – such as South Korean test being trialled in Italy — one that could be used for airline passengers before departure, and 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. 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 implementing change will lead to one of the worst winters for aviation in history.
This is the time for governments to outline a comprehensive air travel strategy that confronts Covid 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.
Coexistence is key and can be achieved with a layered approach to measures. Data from East Asian nations reveals the recovery of their air travel sector is underway, specifically in those nations that were early on to adopt testing & screening and have used their experience to work with airlines to determine how they’ll manage international air travel going forward.
Air transport is an important enabler to achieving economic growth and development. It facilitates integration into the global economy and provides vital connectivity on a national, regional, and international scale. It helps generate trade, tourism, and create employment opportunities. But going forward in a world burdened with Covid, and until (or even, if) there’s a vaccine, every country must adapt their sector with measures to ensure flying doesn’t face further headwinds, restrictions, lockdowns or bans, and help create a level of consistency required for international air travel’s renewed focus on hygiene.
* The author is an aviation analyst.