The coronavirus pandemic has changed life as we know it since early last year, although few things have been as affected as travel.
Some health experts argue that travel by any mode, anywhere in the world, increases one’s chance of getting and spreading Covid-19.
However, corroborated data have shown that most air travellers are now confident about the safety of air travel and believe aircraft are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected.
Based on its latest passenger survey conducted in May, the International Air Transport Association, the global body of airlines, said most air travellers are now confident about the safety of air travel and support mask-wearing in the near-term.
But, a majority are also frustrated with the “hassle factor” around Covid-19 protocols, including confusion and uncertainty about travel rules, testing requirements, and excessive test costs.
The survey of nearly 4,700 travellers in some 11 markets around the world shows that 85% believe aircraft are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, 65% agree the air on an aircraft is as clean as an operating room. And among those who have travelled since June 2020, 86% felt safe onboard owing to Covid-19 measures: 89% believe protective measures are well implemented and 90% believe airline personnel do a good job of enforcing the measures.
Passengers strongly support mask wearing onboard (83%) and strict enforcement of mask rules (86%), but a majority also believe the mask requirement should be ended as soon as possible.
That said, masks are now required on all flights, and will likely stick around as an accessory. Some experts think masks are likely here to stay, even after Covid-19 vaccines have become widely available.
Renowned US doctor Anthony Fauci suggested that precautions implemented during the height of the pandemic, such as masks and social distancing, should remain in place for the foreseeable future.
“It’s difficult to overstate just how much the Covid-19 pandemic has devastated airlines,” McKinsey & Company noted recently. In 2020, industry revenues totalled $328bn, which was around 40% of what was registered in 2019. In nominal terms, that’s the same as in 2000!
The sector is expected to be smaller for years to come; McKinsey projects traffic won’t return to 2019 levels at least before 2024. Financial woes aside, the pandemic’s longer-term effects on aviation are emerging. Some of these are obvious: hygiene and safety standards will be more stringent, and digitalisation will continue to transform the travel experience.
Mobile apps will be used to store travellers’ vaccine certificates and Covid-19 test results. Other effects, though, are more profound. Unlike the 2008 global financial crisis, which was purely economic and weakened spending power considerably, Covid-19 has changed global consumer behaviour — and the airline sector — irrevocably. While this is true, many participants in the IATA survey admit that they struggle with the Covid-related rules and requirements and that this impacts their willingness to travel: 70% thought the rules and the accompanying paperwork were a challenge to understand, 67% saw arranging testing as a hassle and 89% agreed governments must standardise vaccinations/testing certifications.
IATA’s director general Willie Walsh said, “Air travellers recognise and value the safety measures put in place to minimise the risk of Covid-19 transmission during air travel. And they support the continuation of these measures as long as necessary, but they also don’t want the measures to become permanent. In the meantime, we all need to respect the rules and the safety of fellow passengers. “It is unacceptable that unruly passenger incidents have doubled compared to 2019, and the increase in physically abusive behaviour is a particular cause for great concern.”
These responses should be a wake-up call to governments that they need to do a better job of preparing for a restart. Almost two thirds of respondents plan to resume travel within a few months of the pandemic being contained (and borders opened). And by the six-month mark almost 85% expect to be back to travel.
“To avoid overwhelming airports and border control authorities, governments need to agree to replace paper-based processes with digital solutions like the IATA Travel Pass for vaccine and testing documentation,” said Walsh.
Almost nine out of 10 respondents like the idea of using a mobile app to store their travel health credentials and 87% support a secure digital system to manage health credentials.
However, 75% say they will only use an app if they have full control of their vaccine/test data.
“IATA Travel Pass enables travellers to receive, store and share their health information with governments and airlines but they always keep control of the information on their own mobile device.
Now is the time for governments to facilitate digital solutions like IATA Travel Pass to avoid chaos at airports as travel begins to return,” said Walsh.
* Pratap John is Business Editor at Gulf Times. Twitter handle: @PratapJohn.
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