IATA‘s CEO and President first message is that we are in this crisis together. And the only way out of the crisis is also together.
Passenger demand has collapsed. Part of that is because people are afraid to travel. Part of that is because borders are not open. And a further element is that, even when borders are open, governments are imposing quarantines.
The result is that planes, hotels, convention centers, attractions, and restaurants are empty. And recovery will be slow and financially painful.
Airlines are expected to lose $84 billion this year. Several airlines have gone bankrupt already. Emergency measures, such as the financial aid package offered by the government here to Cathay Pacific, are lifelines intended to ensure viable airlines when the recovery starts.
A Layered Approach to Biosafety
The first area is biosafety. Research tells that over 80% of fliers believe that travel poses a risk for catching viruses. In the travel process, these concerns focus on queuing, the potential for being in close proximity with infected people, sanitization of facilities (especially toilets and washrooms) and breathing the air onboard an aircraft.
Many of these concerns are addressed in the Takeoff aviation re-start guidelines published by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Key elements of the guidance include:
- Mask wearing during travel,
- More frequent and deeper sanitization,
- Contactless processes,
- Simplified cabin services
- Automated procedures for customs and border protection
- Limited access and temperature screening at airport terminals
- Health declarations, and
- Social distancing where possible
These pragmatic guidelines will reduce the risk of transmission when traveling. They were developed in record time, under the leadership of ICAO and with the full support of the industry. Now they must be implemented.
Because aviation is a network business, the implementation must be universal, while respecting local guidance. With many governments trying to re-start their economies they must act fast.
The Take-off guidance has a dual mission:
- To reduce the potential for contagion while traveling, and
- To restore passenger confidence that it is safe to travel
Rebuilding Passenger Confidence
At the beginning of March, about 60% of travelers said they would return to travel within a few months of the pandemic coming under control. By early June that dropped to 45%.
Communicating the measures that we have taken is key. We are doing that as IATA. The industry is working to send an aligned message.
This includes the important topic of cabin air. There are several reasons that travelers can be reassured.
- Some cabin factors naturally limit the spread of droplets
- Everyone is facing forward
- The seat backs are a barrier,
- People generally don’t move around very much, and
- Air circulates from top to bottom, not back to front
- On top of that, the quality of air onboard is much better than most indoor environments
- HEPA filters in modern aircraft ensure that recirculated air is similar to what you would find in a hospital operating theatre
- And the air is exchanged for fresh air from outside 20-30 times an hour—about 10 times more frequently than most office buildings.
Add to that all the bio-safety measures from the Take-off guidance like mask wearing, and we have an impressive story to tell.
The biggest issue is quarantine. When governments insist upon quarantine for arriving passengers, the impact is the same as closing the border. So, when governments decide that they want to re-start their economies we are presenting them with an alternative proposal to quarantine. It involves measures to keep infected people out of the travel system to reduce the risk of importing COVID-19 cases. And this must be coupled with effective measures at the destination that reduce the risk of an infected traveler starting a new cluster.
To keep sick people from traveling we recommend:
- Discouraging people with symptoms from traveling. To help this, many airlines are being very flexible with rebooking for symptomatic people and their travel companions.
- Health screening at the departure airport
- COVID-19 testing prior to departure for arrivals from high-risk countries, when this is practical. This is challenging because we need tests that are accurate, fast and available at scale. We also need a secure platform to transmit testing data. And we need validated testing methodologies (PCR tests to find active virus cases) that will be mutually recognized by governments.
The other issue that arises with testing is the cost. With testing fees as high as $200 in some countries it can be a barrier to travel. The WHO International Health Regulations state that if a country requires testing it is the government that should bear the cost. And if it is voluntary, our advice is that the cost should not become an economic barrier to travel.
Despite these hurdles, technology is improving rapidly. And in the absence of a vaccine, testing is likely to be an important part of learning to live with the virus.
We must also prepare to effectively limit the potential for new clusters to form en-route or at destination. For these we suggest three layers of measures:
- Implementing the ICAO Take-Off measures
- Contact tracing at destination so any new infection can be quickly isolated
- Augmenting the measures that governments are already taking (social distancing and mask wearing for example) with the specific WTTC Safe Travel Protocols across the various elements of the hospitality industry (hotels, restaurants, convention centers etc.).
Together these measures are a credible alternative for governments that want to re-start their travel sector while reducing the risk of importing the virus.
2. Travel Insurance
The second issue is insurance. And it is coming more into view as travel begins to re-start. People don’t want to risk bearing the potential cost of treatment for COVID-19 or for quarantine in a foreign destination. They also want certainty that their investments in travel will not be lost if a destination closes or if they are not able to travel due to COVID-19.
Research tells that availability of reasonably priced travel insurance will be a factor in decisions to travel. But it is not yet clear the insurance markets have identified this as an opportunity. IATA is engaging insurance providers on this issue which will be vital for all members of the travel and tourism sector.
There is solid ground for optimism. This crisis has demonstrated how much is lost when the world cannot travel.
For sure, business travelers will question their travel habits. And leisure travel will be impacted by economic uncertainty. As much as we are connecting through Zoom, Teams, Houseparty, or other technologies, it is not the same as being there. Flying is freedom, and travel is freedom. That is not something people forget or lose their desire for. It will take time for the market to return. But I am convinced that our combined confidence-building efforts can make it stronger than ever when it does.