The global aviation sector has been rocked this week by troubling “new Covid variant” developments that have seen borders slam shut, airlines suspend routes, and countries ban travel – all very suddenly over the last 7 days. Once again in this pandemic, no matter how many conference event ‘talks’ held by government officials pledging a more unified response in the future, and no matter how many ‘airline CEO panels’ have discussed the topic of taking action amid new pandemic developments, this week has proven there is still no harmonisation in responding anything that emerges during this Covid pandemic.
Countries will close borders. Airlines will cut flights. Travel bans will be implemented. People will be stranded all over the world. There will be zero notice. It’s the unfortunate reality.
For the airlines, most are currently scrambling to limit the impact of the latest coronavirus variant on their networks, while delays in bookings are threatening an already-fragile recovery for global tourism. The latest outbreak, first reported in southern Africa, dealt a blow to the industry just as it had recovery in its sights, especially following the easing of US-bound travel. Multiple countries including Japan, the United States, Britain, Thailand, Switzerland, and elsewhere have imposed travel curbs in order to allow scientists to learn more about the “Omicron” variant.
Here in the Gulf, both Qatar Airways and Emirates have taken the decision to suspend all flights from the southern Africa region, including the prominent South Africa market which is at its busiest during this holiday season. Given its role as a global airline specialising in connecting passengers around the world via its transit hub in Doha, Qatar’s swift action to temporarily withdraw flights from the region ensured alignment with the UK, European and the US, which had already initiated travel bans on the area.
Qatar Airways’ boss HE Akbar al-Baker has said he hopes that the new Omicron variant detected last week “will have a limited overall impact” on aviation’s recovery, with the “process of unlocking” continuing. “However, this growth must be accompanied by a consistent and co-ordinated relaxation of border restrictions, when adhering to biosafety measures is recommended by both the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the WHO.”
But Willie Walsh, head of global airlines industry body IATA, called the restrictions a "knee-jerk reaction." In an interview with BBC Radio, he urged authorities to institute "sensible" testing regimes and avoid measures that have caused "massive" financial damage to the industry in the past.
"This virus cannot be beaten in the way some of these measures would have people believe," said Walsh. "We have to adjust. We have to take sensible measures."
Rising Covid-19 cases as well as the new border restrictions have prompted analysts to adjust their outlook for the industry. HSBC expect the industry's recovery would be pushed back by a year.
Singapore deferred plans to open its borders to vaccinated travellers from the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia because those countries are transit hubs for African travel. Singapore Airlines also said it had converted some of its flights to Johannesburg and Cape Town to cargo-only. Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways, which like Singapore Airlines lacks a domestic market, said it was too early to assess Omicron’s impact on demand.
The global restrictions continued to strengthen, however. Travellers arriving into France from outside the European Union must have a negative Covid-19 test, regardless of their vaccination status, French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said on Wednesday.
The move is part of a bundle of measures aimed at tackling a new surge in infections as worries caused by the newly detected Omicron variant loom.
Talking to journalists after a government meeting, Attal said that decisions regarding travel within the EU would be coordinated by European leaders later this week. Portugal on Wednesday tightened its passenger controls in airports, seaports and land borders, by requiring negative coronavirus tests for most incoming visitors in a bid to shield itself from the Omicron variant. It also reintroduced mandatory face mask measures in enclosed spaces and a requirement for people to show proof of coronavirus vaccinations or Covid-19 recovery tests to enter restaurants, cinemas, gyms and hotels.
Japan’s transport ministry said it has asked airlines to stop taking new incoming flight bookings for one month as of December 1 over Omicron concerns. Existing bookings will not be affected by the suspension.
Japan has so far reported two confirmed cases of Omicron. Earlier this week it tightened its border measures, banning entry of all non-citizens coming from 10 southern African nations.
Morocco has already suspended all incoming passenger flights for two weeks amid Omicron concerns. A government committee tasked with overseeing the country’s Covid-19 response said in a statement that the ban “would be evaluated regularly to make adjustments if necessary. The decision has been taken because of the quick spread of the new Covid variant, Omicron, namely in Europe and Africa, and to protect the health of Moroccan citizens” it said.
All international arrivals into South Korea during the next 2 weeks will have to undergo 10 days quarantine regardless of vaccination status. South Korea is also banning flights/travel from Ethiopia — Africa’s largest airport hub. Switzerland will require travellers from Portugal, Nigeria, Canada and Japan to quarantine for 10 days, due to the presence of the Omicron variant in those countries. For the UK, all passenger arrivals, even vaccinated, must quarantine on arrival, and then take pre-booked PCR. Only when the PCR negative result is out, the passenger permitted to end quarantine — but this could be multiple days depending on the test provider.
In the US, the Biden administration plans to tighten travel rules to combat the Omicron variant of the coronavirus by requiring all air travellers to the US to be tested within a day of their departure regardless of vaccination status, according to a person familiar with the matter.
President Joe Biden plans to announce the new requirements on Thursday in a speech detailing his plan to contain the pandemic through the winter. Currently, vaccinated travellers must get tested within three days of boarding their flight to the US; under the change that would be cut to one day.
* The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir