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Aviation's recovery from the COVID-19 crisis will be a long-haul flight

Aviation’s recovery from the COVID-19 crisis will be a long-haul flight

Alexandre de Juniac, Director General and CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), is working with industry and governments to restore connectivity and prevent an unemployment disaster

The COVID-19 crisis has caused a collapse in air traffic and had a catastrophic impact on the airline industry and the aviation value chain.

The summer travel season has provided little reprieve from the impact of COVID-19; the situation is grim. We estimate that for 2020 air traffic (measured in revenue/ passenger/kilometres or RPKs) will be down at least 50%. This figure was based on the assumption that international traffic would pick up in the third and fourth quarters of the year, although this is looking increasingly unlikely as many key markets remain locked down, with travellers banned or subject to significant quarantine periods on arrival. The slow speed of improvement means that we now think it will be 2024 before RPKs return to 2019 levels. And this could slip further if there are setbacks in containing the virus or finding a vaccine.

The fall in RPKs has had a disastrous impact on revenues: airlines will make a loss this year of $84 billion and our early estimate of 2021 losses is $15.8 billion. These are the worst financial results in aviation history. Some airlines have already collapsed, merged, or severely retrenched. Airports are mothballing terminals.

"Airlines will make a loss this year of $84 billion and our early estimate of 2021 losses is $15.8 billion."

Unless international air travel can restart effectively soon, the situation will become terminal for even more carriers – with disastrous effects for our aviation business partners, the wider economy and society.

Safely restarting air travel

EUROCONTROL has been extremely supportive throughout the crisis through its financial support measures, network management recovery actions and the supply of key data. IATA, along with airlines and other industry stakeholders, has been working continuously with governments to safely restart flying.

The first priority is keeping people safe. Numerous studies have shown that the risk of COVID transmission on board is low. That’s not just a happy coincidence. Movement of air forward and aft in the cabin is limited by seatbacks and a ceiling-tofloor airflow. With everybody oriented forward, there is limited face-to-face contact. The air is exchanged with fresh air from outside every two or three minutes on most aircraft. That’s 20 to 30 times more frequently than most office buildings. And HEPA filters take out viruses—including the coronavirus— with each filtration.

COVID-19

COVID-19 impact on the European air traffic network

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In the face of COVID-19 we are taking extra measures. We have worked with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the World Health Organization (WHO) and both national and regional health and transport bodies, such as the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), on global best practices and guidelines to operate safely during the COVID crisis.

These measures have given governments a solid basis to restart aviation and go a long way to addressing travellers’ main concerns about sanitisation and human interaction.

The outcomes of this work are clearly visible:

  • mandatory wearing of face masks at both the airport and onboard;
  • increased sanitisation of key airport and aircraft touch points;
  • enabling social distancing at departure and arrival and on board in terms of queuing for lavatories;
  • reduced service on board and
  • contactless processes that minimise human interaction.

All of this makes the aircraft cabin one of the least-risky public spaces that people could experience. Even if effective social distancing on board is not possible (even neutralising the middle seat does not create the recommended 1m-1.5m distance), the layers of measures will keep travellers safe.

Challenges facing government and industry

The industry has done a good job to safely keep our world connected during the COVID-19 crisis. But operations are far from normal and many challenges remain. These are challenges that we share with governments: avoiding the importation of COVID-19 through travel; restoring people’s freedom of movement and repairing the economy.

To keep COVID-19 outside their countries, many governments have simply closed their borders. Others kept their borders open but imposed quarantine on travellers. The effect is the same – it halts travel, so we are not making progress in restoring the fundamental right of movement and the travel and tourism economy is effectively stopped. We must learn to live with this virus. The Stop-Go-Stop approach to lifting and reimposing restrictions does not bring us closer to that, nor will it enable economic recovery.

Already we are seeing some governments becoming more precise and targeted with preventative measures because it is clear we must limit any return to widespread lockdowns and the economic and social damage they cause. In this situation, the behaviour of the general public – wearing of masks, social distancing where possible, and continued hand sanitisation – is crucial. From an aviation standpoint we have asked passengers feeling ill not to travel, and many ticket options offer a no-penalty cancellation if the passenger suspects they might have COVID-19.

"Flying is freedom, & travel is freedom!"

It is also becoming increasingly apparent that COVID-19 testing will need to play a role in facilitating travel. There are already tests that are accurate enough to be used to facilitate the relaxing of travel restrictions. Testing at the start of the travel process would create a “sterile” travel environment to reassure travellers and governments, and could be an effective risk equalisation measure to support the reopening of borders between countries where there is significant asymmetry in infection rates.

The outlook

Unfortunately, there are few signs that we are going to win the battle to control COVID-19 in the immediate future, so we are relying on governments to help us avoid an unemployment disaster with relief measures – financial and regulatory – that will keep the industry afloat and ready to lead the recovery

The collapse in connectivity puts tens of millions of jobs worldwide at risk. That’s because each airline job supports a further 14 jobs in the wider economy. Half of all tourists arrive by air, and economies where tourism is a significant employer will be disproportionately hit by travel restrictions and quarantine.

The aid given by numerous governments worldwide will soften some of this blow, but it is sadly inevitable that there will still be heavy job losses. Each one is a tragedy for the individual and their families. Important skills will be lost. And it makes the task of returning to growth even harder – which in turn will affect the wider economy, which relies on global air connectivity to flourish.

"It will take time for the market to return. But when it does, the long-term prospects are solid because we fulfill the fundamental human need for connection and mobility."

We know that governments receive lots of pleas for help. But there is good reason to prioritise aviation because of the huge catalytic effect aviation has on social and economic development, on trade and prosperity, and on jobs and skills. It is a solid investment in the future. Protecting the air connectivity between countries helps strengthen the foundations for future economic growth.

The human need to travel is still with us

Recovery from the COVID-19 crisis will be a long-haul flight. Passenger confidence will take time to be rebuilt. But we must remain hopeful that, as people start to travel again, we will build up some momentum. For sure, business travellers will question their travel habits. And leisure travel will be impacted by economic uncertainty. It is going to be a very rough rest of 2020 and probably 2021.

But, 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 when it does, the longterm prospects are solid because we fulfill the fundamental human need for connection and mobility.

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