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COVID-19: Lack of a global approach to international flights

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Unless industry officials move quickly, political tunnel vision and chaos around international flights will remain, argues Jean-Marc Bourreau, strategic air transport advisor at CPCS.

  • Air transport institutions have failed to provide timely and adequate response
  • Governments have created political chaos for air transport
  • Air industry has focused on protecting its business model instead of putting the passenger confidence at the forefront of their fight
  • How can we save the day?

Air transport in disarray

The former international airport executive believes that a decisive first step is recognizing what is hindering international air transport recovery.

“I want to see decision makers participating in a high-level emergency international conference on air transport and leave with clear goals to harmonize how international flights are managed in this new normal.”

With more than 95% of international flights cancelled between January and June of 2020 is just an illustration of the depth of the wound sustained. The situation remains gloomy at best despite some weak signs of recovery.

It’s clear to Bourreau why the situation is complicated.

“Countries have put in place inconsistent measures around vaccination status and certification, testing, quarantines and border closures. This is on top of travel bans so complex and without any harmonization that airlines and passengers are facing incredibly high levels of uncertainty, incompatible with most travel needs.”

Effect of COVID-19 response

The initial response of the international institutions was weak and untimely. Basic health measures to protect crews and passengers, such as the mandatory use of masks, were disputed for months. Timid and unclear guidance from the United Nations, World Health Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization appeared only months into the crisis, leaving airports, airlines and governments on their own.

Recently published technical guidance fails to recognize that the crisis is no longer a matter of technical response, but rather political.

Governments reacted with widely varying policies, untimely for the most part, and without any coordination: borders were closed unilaterally, often without informing the other countries in advance, quarantines were imposed in varying schemes, and domestically, responses to the crisis ranged from complete lockdowns to no response at all.

Moreover, most governments changed their policies, in a trial-and-error mode, adding to the political chaos that prevails today.

Airlines, either individually or through their association, opposed most initiatives that could have comforted passenger confidence and instead spent considerable efforts trying to demonstrate that flying was safe, when, indeed, no activity involving gathering in confined environment and without stringent protective measures can be safe.

Airports implemented distancing measures in infrastructures that were not designed for them, and focused on securing financing, often executing force majeure clauses, and called for traffic resumption without proposing integral protection measures. Physical distancing did not resist the reality of operations.

System for air transit recovery  

Almost two years after the first reported cases of COVID-19, domestic air traffic in Europe, China, the USA and a few other countries has reached levels comparable to the pre-pandemic levels, while international traffic is still severely limited. Again, this tells us that the limitation is not technical, but rather political.

So, let’s organize this international conference so that we leave with clear goals like this one: establish a simple system that allows airlines and travellers to understand the COVID-19 situation in each country, with associated standardized requirements to travel to and from every country.

A simple green, yellow and red system, based on common parameters, as simple as possible, and with common sanitary requirements for each category could save the day.

Achieving this in one conference might be wishful thinking, but establishing a forum where a common political message can emerge from the largest economies of the world would be a giant leap forward.

Who will step up to the challenge and set the basis for the true recovery of air transport?

Jean-Marc Bourreau leads the Aviation advisory practice at CPCS, a global infrastructure management consulting firm specializing in transport, power, public-private partnerships and related analytics. 

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