The near-term picture for aviation remains bleak with the already tepid recovery in air travel demand coming to a grinding halt towards the end of 2020.
That’s because policymakers responded to new outbreaks with even more severe travel restrictions and quarantine measures.
Global measures towards achieving a zero-Covid world are highly laudable, but medical professionals and public health experts say we will not be able to eliminate the risk of coronavirus in any foreseeable timeline.
The world must learn to manage the risk of Covid-19 so that normal lives and activities – including travel – can safely resume.
The aviation sector has been hit particularly hard by coronavirus, which has disrupted travel, the transportation industry overall, and operations of airlines and airports globally.
According to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), a specialised UN agency, passenger seat capacity is down about 51%, entailing staggering economic losses of around $390bn in 2020 alone!
Before Covid-19, a decades-long aviation boom spawned a network of nearly 50,000 air routes that traversed the world. In less than a year, the pandemic has wiped almost a third of them off the map and the industry’s situation still remains perilous!
Systematic pre-departure Covid-19 testing is key to restoring the highly disrupted air connectivity across the globe.
Pre-departure testing is an added layer of protection to the strong measures many countries have already in place, such as mandatory quarantine, which however, discourages most passengers from flying.
The deployment of rapid, accurate, affordable, easy-to-operate, scalable and systematic Covid-19 testing will ensure that at current infection levels, aviation will not become a meaningful vector of new transmissions.
At a recent online media briefing, IATA director general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac said, “Instead of a boost from the year-end holiday period, we got even more restrictions. Governments tightened borders in a knee-jerk response to a virus mutation. Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, and others added testing to their Covid-19 measures without removing quarantine requirements. In other words, they have chosen policy measures that will shut down travel.”
Asked about policies towards achieving a zero-Covid world, de Juniac said, “This is an impossible task that comes with severe consequences – the full extent of which would be impossible to calculate.
“But, with this approach, we know for sure that the travel and tourism economy will not recover; jobs will continue to disappear; and the lockdown’s toll on people’s mental health will continue to grow – particularly on those who are separated from loved ones. A more balanced public policy approach is needed – one that is based on testing as a replacement for quarantines so that we can begin addressing the severe side-effects of Covid-19 policies.”
Reliable studies have shown that travellers are not a significant factor in community transmission if testing is used effectively.
But most countries have not focused on finding ways to safely reopen borders. Consistent, well-reasoned, scientifically supported policies must be used to manage the risks of Covid-19 and travel.
For travel and tourism to come back, borders have to re-open. And eventually that will transition to vaccine requirements.
For both, we need a globally accepted means to verify that people have accurate tests or genuine vaccines.
In line with this, IATA recently launched the ‘Travel Pass’, which effectively acts as a ‘digital passport’ for travellers and is the latest tool in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.
National carrier Qatar Airways said it will try out IATA Travel Pass from March, thus aiming to become the first airline in the Middle East to begin trialling the innovative new mobile app, in partnership with the International Air Transport Association.
The trial will play an important role in the airline's vision to have a more contactless, secure and seamless travel experience for its passengers.
The first phase of trials of the ‘Digital Passport’ will be rolled out on the airline’s Doha to Istanbul route, enabling passengers to receive Covid-19 test results and verify they are eligible to undertake their journey.
Aviation is an important engine of our world, and will play a critical role in lifting the world to recovery from Covid-19.
As UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently emphasised, “Let us ensure aviation receives the support it needs to keep the world’s nations connected and united. I urge countries to act urgently to sustain their air transport sectors from the challenges thrown up by the pandemic”
Undoubtedly, international aviation plays a stellar role in everyday lives, allowing people to discover the world and its cultures, connecting societies through travel and trade, and advancing access to food, education and healthcare.
For this reason, the aviation sector deserves better care, greater support so that it can weather the crisis sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic.