Collaboration and co-operation will prove key to overcoming COVID-19 although aviation potentially faces a long road to recovery, writes Inderjit Singh.
Aviation is one of the most important pillars of the global economy as the sector provides millions of jobs across the world and contributes heavily to its GDP.
It is also a survivor, as the industry’s previous recovery from events such as 9/11, the global financial crisis and SARS have proven over the last 20 years.
However, the world and aviation has seen nothing like COVID-19 before, and surviving it will require new levels of industry and global co-operation.
Global COVID-19 update
In just months, COVID-19 has already ‘infected’ every sector of the global economy. At the time of writing on June 9 there had been 7.2 million confirmed cases in 213 countries, with over 409,000 of them succumbing to the illness.
It is difficult to talk of commercial impacts amidst such human tragedy but, obviously, airports and airlines have been among the biggest corporate casualties of this outbreak. As the coronavirus and resulting government restrictions quickly brought air passenger traffic to a halt; the knock-on effect has hit everyone working in the transport, tourism and commerce chains.
How long will it take aviation to return to its pre-coronavirus levels? Unfortunately, the short answer, is not for a very long time. The recovery will be long and slow, but it will happen.
Working together is the name of the game
In essence, we must step-up the current level of industry and global co-operation several gears to ensure that we’re all working together to create an ecosystem and an environment of confidence where passengers feel safe to take to the skies again.
ICAO has been working with governments and industry partners ACI and IATA to ensure that harmonised and updated procedures are made available in order to keep passengers safe, the world connected, and the virus contained.
Indeed, ICAO secretary general, Dr Fang Liu, and World Health Organization director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, recently reaffirmed their commitment to foster greater international co-operation to contain the virus and to protect the health of travellers.
ACI World director general, Angela Gittens, has gone on record as welcoming the multi-sector and multi-agency communication, noting that the COVID-19 outbreak and its impact on aviation has “highlighted the need for effective co-ordination and a proportionate response from States”.
IATA director general and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, has stated: “Safety is always our top priority and that includes public health. Our layered approach of measures recommended by airports and airlines safeguard public health while offering a practical approach for a gradual restart of operations.
“That is key to restoring public confidence so the benefits of safely re-starting aviation can be realised.”
Today’s COVID-19 impacted world means that the aviation industry is now charged with embracing a new responsibility for managing public health risks in close co-ordination with the WHO, and other health related research agencies, effectively developing a ‘new normal’ for the industry.
Solutions can’t come quickly enough as ACI World analysis indicates that airports are set to lose around 40% of their traffic and 50% of their revenues in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
The latest data suggests that worldwide domestic markets are down by 70% in 2020, and worryingly, an IATA consumer confidence survey revealed that only 14% of passengers said they would fly right away, while 60% said they would fly again within one to two months of containment of the COVID-19 pandemic, and 40% said that they could wait six months or more before they take to the skies again.
These findings will reshape and reimagine the passenger journey, and the goal should be about building passenger trust and confidence by making travel safe, easy and contactless. This strategic technological transformation is critical for the future of the air transport industry.
The path to restarting the industry is certainly not going to be an easy one, which is why I am pleased to report that across the globe, governments are beginning to co-ordinate their efforts and industry co-operation is growing, with the health and wellbeing of passengers and staff as the priority.
And this kind of working together will be needed as demand for air travel isn’t expected to really pick up again until there’s a breakthrough vaccine or other lasting solutions for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Only through demonstrative visible and effective measures can we regain the confidence of the stakeholders in the industry, as was done post 9/11, with the new invasive security measures.
The new measures weren’t popular with passengers, and without doubt added to the hassle of flying, but they soon became accepted as a necessary requirement, more so when they became standardised across the globe.
In the coming weeks and months, airlines will look to return to the skies with some reflection on the shrinking of fleets. In the short-term, one of the primary focuses will be on how to drive new operational cost efficiencies with smarter and more efficient aircraft and turnaround operations.
Airport operations will need to become more flexible and adaptive to rapidly changing passenger volumes and requirements. It is expected that domestic travel will bounce back more quickly than international, although some countries have already opened up their borders again to a limited number of overseas destinations.
The modalities related to kick-start air travel post COVID-19 are still evolving. It is too early to predict when airports worldwide would be able to return to handle their full capacity. A lot of it will depend on how aviation’s regulatory authorities assess and react to the extraordinary ‘new normal’, and what governments across the globe do to cope with the evolving scenario. Until then it is a ‘work in progress’ situation.
Primarily based on advice from the WHO, the world’s airports and airlines are in the process of integrating and enforcing the primary norms of social distancing, sanitisation, and increased frequency of air-changes to control the spread of the pandemic in airport terminals and onboard aircraft.
These may at best remain short-term measures and won’t be economically, socially and logistically sustainable in the long run.
I expect that airports will initially be able to cope quite well in terms of maintaining the new social distancing requirements because of the lower passenger numbers – airlines are likely to operate reduced frequencies and smaller aircraft on routes – meaning that the capacity of airport terminals is unlikely to be stretched.
However, sustaining physical distancing norms over a longer period of time with increased traffic will lead to congestion and delays in processing times.
In the new paradigm that the aviation is facing, technology will play an increasingly important role in supporting the recovery of airports following COVID-19 pandemic. Technology could be leveraged and positioned to minimise personal contact through a layered approach of biosecurity measures proposed by covering the passenger journey, from pre-flight to end of the air journey.
This is especially so in the area of ‘touchless’ and ‘contactless’ solutions such as mobile and self-service biometrics, temperature scans, e-gates, and RFID readers for the verification of e-chip data embedded in passports.
The key elements of the Public Health Corridor (PHC) concept are the use of ‘clean’ crew, aircraft and airport facilities transporting ‘clean’ passengers with minimal restrictions on aircraft operations, whilst preventing the spread of COVID-19 through air travel and protecting the health and safety of crew and passengers.
Given the lack of a vaccine and definitive treatment for COVID-19, and persisting limitations on testing and resources, ICAO notes that while the risk of contracting COVID-19 during air travel cannot yet be completely eliminated, the risk to crew and passengers can be significantly mitigated by PHC measures.
My take on things
COVID-19 is still an evolving phenomenon. Much has been done and much more action is in the pipeline to allow aviation – and the world in general – to combat and eventually overcome the pandemic.
The most important thing to remember going forward is to treat and respond to the situation with care rather than scare. Cynics have often mentioned that aviation will never be the same. This may well be true, but it will eventually emerge from COVID-19 as a safer and healthier industry.
At the end of this write-up we are perhaps left with as many questions as there are answers or more questions still to be answered. It is my conviction that it is better to debate a question without instantly settling it than to settle a question without debating it.