Commercial aviation now faces the biggest challenge in its nearly 107 years history — restarting an industry that largely has ceased to operate across borders, while ensuring that it is not a meaningful vector for the spread of Covid-19.
The full extent of the damage caused by the pandemic on the global aviation industry is not known… and may never be known! According to IATA, losses incurred by airlines alone will total about $120bn in 2020 and another $40bn in 2021.
And there is an enormous social and mental toll caused by up to 46mn lost jobs in travel and tourism, lockdowns and family separations. Perhaps a key reason why it is important to safely reconnect people by reopening borders, without quarantine. And this has to be planned and executed responsibly by carefully managing risks.
Meeting this challenge will mean making significant changes across the arc of the air travel experience — pre-flight, at the departure airport, onboard, and post-flight, IATA noted.
It will require global governments to assume broad new responsibilities in terms of assessing and identifying traveller health risks, as they did for security after the ‘9/11 attacks’ in the US. Airlines and airports will need to introduce and adapt processes and procedures to minimise contagion risk in the airport and aircraft environments.
Passengers will need to be empowered to take more control of their travel, including responsibly assessing their own level of health risk before a journey.
In collaboration with international health authorities, the global trade body of airlines recently proposed strict bio-safety protocols, systematic testing, secure digital health passport and financial aid and cost reduction to safely reopen borders and restart commercial aviation.
Taken together these measures may allow governments to reopen borders and lift quarantines without fear of creating new outbreaks.
In parallel, industry captains are doing all that they can to keep economically vital air cargo shipments moving. This includes enabling efficient vaccine distribution by air with effective global standards.
Globally, airlines transport more than 52mn metric tonnes of goods a year, representing more than 35% of global trade by value, but less than 1% of world trade by volume. That is equivalent to $6.8tn worth of goods annually, or $18.6bn worth of goods every day.
With strict bio-safety measures, including the wearing of masks throughout the travel process, the air travel environment is safe. Studies by Harvard, the US Department of Defence and aircraft manufacturers point to the low risk of air travel when wearing a mask.
And fewer that 100 of the 50mn Covid-19 cases globally have been documented as passenger-to-passenger transmission in flight.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), public health authorities, IATA, airports, manufacturers and other key stakeholders have been collaborating through the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to produce guidance on bio-safety measures: the ICAO CART take-off guidance.
Using this guidance, IATA has produced a roadmap to implement best practices across all stages of the travel journey from pre-departure to arrival.
The bio-safety measures include wearing face covering, contactless check-in, health screening at airports, physical distancing where possible, enhanced cleaning and disinfection processes and on-board cabin architecture including hospital-grade HEPA filters and air flow direction.
Recent studies all point in the direction that testing reduces the risk of importing Covid-19 through travel to very low levels. A detailed modelling study also concluded that test-and-release without quarantine found only 0.01% of arrivals potentially infected with Covid-19.
Another critical element to a safe and successful restart is continued government financial and regulatory support, regulatory alleviation and cost reduction across the value chain.
The $173bn of financial support provided by governments last year has been a lifeline for many airlines. Significant cash burn is expected to continue well into 2021 and demand is not expected to recover to 2019 levels until at least 2024.
Continued support to stabilise the industry will be needed, industry experts say. Critically, this must not further inflate the industry’s debt burden, which has increased by over 50% to $651bn.
In normal times, aviation delivers $2.7tn in global GDP contribution. Every one of the 25mn employees in the airline industry helps to support up to 24 other jobs in the broader economy. More than a third of global trade by value moves by air.
Therefore, successfully restarting air passenger travel while restoring confidence in the safety of air travel are vital prerequisites to enabling the global economy to recover from Covid-19.
The good news, however, is that after many difficult months, it looks like there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
With clinically proven vaccinations against Covid-19 underway in many countries, the wider industry is contemplating how to restart commercial aviation in 2021.
By building confidence in air travel, we can take one big step in what will possibly be a long journey towards resumption of ‘normal’ operations in commercial aviation.