Why Aviation Sectors Must Confront COVID19, Not Hide From It

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, COVID19, 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 COVID19.

Impact of COVID-19 on airline capacity – FT

The current goal should be clear: to ensure that COVID19 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 COVID19, 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 COVID19 in a similar way aviation was able to confront, and then successfuly 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 COVID19 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 COVID19 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.

In the Middle East, Qatar is testing passengers on arrival, and then using its contact tracing up ‘Ehteraz’ (Arabic for ‘precaution’) to change the individual health status of the passenger arriving from abroad to the colour grey: meaning “in quarantine”. With a week of home-isolation required following the airport test, the person wouldn’t be able to stray very far from home and enter a public place, such as a supermarket, with an “in quarantine” grey status on his app, as showing a green ‘Ehteraz’ status is required to enter all public places in the country.

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 a new 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 COVID19 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.

Border controls and quarantine have become the norm since March, and by the end of March over 90% of the world’s population were living in countries with restrictions on passengers arriving from abroad. The UK was considered the outlier — with none — allowing over 20 million people to enter the country with no checks, no tests, no measures, and no quarantine. The country quickly became the coronavirus hotspot of Europe and ended up having the highest COVID19 death toll of all European countries, according to ONS figures.

Now August, several hundred thousand school pupils returning from pandemic holidays overseas, plus over 400,000 international students will fly into the UK over the coming weeks in what is expected to be the largest influx of population since March. Once again, these passengers will enter a country with no air travel strategy in place. There is no passenger testing, no airport measures, no screening, unenforceable quarantine applicable only to arrivals from certain countries, and a passenger contact tracing system in England that’s been described by some ministers as ‘simply not functioning’. This lack of air travel strategy needs to be remembered, should schools or universities be blamed for a ‘spike’ come September.

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 COVID19, 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 hygeine.

Main image: Steve Strike/Getty Images

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