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COVID-19 and recovery of aviation from testing to the new normal

COVID-19 and recovery of aviation

Anticipating and embracing societal changes and economic transformation will be the most important challenge for aviation.

Article by Olivier Jankovec, Director General, ACI EUROPE

For a trade association like ACI EUROPE, a crisis of the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic is a defining moment. It comes with the opportunity - or rather the imperative - to prove our relevance and provide tangible value for our airport members. But while we have certainly spared no effort to support airports across Europe navigating the shock of COVID-19, we still have a mountain to climb when it comes to securing the conditions that will finally see airports and the whole of aviation recover.

The restart came fairly quickly from the moment confinement policies were relaxed, with the Aviation Health Safety Protocol developed by the EASA in close cooperation with the ECDC playing an essential role. But as infections started to climb again, European States promptly reinstated travel restrictions. They did so in the worst possible way: without coordination, without reasonable advance notice, with quarantines – and very often with public expressions that demonised travel and tourism. And they did so despite the WHO and the ECDC conclusion that travel restrictions are ineffective where community transmission is already present.

This resulted in a total loss of public confidence in cross-border travel, and while the complete closure of borders generally remained the exception, the result was exactly the same: people stopped making plans to go places, and corporations kept banning business travel. This initially stalled the recovery in passenger traffic for Europe’s airports, before sending it into reverse. Since mid-August, volumes are down week after week.

"This is about restoring one of the founding pillars of the EU: the free movement of people."

 

How do we get out of here?

Clearly, the priority is to replace quarantines by testing. This is the only way forward in a context where infections keep rising in many countries and the epidemiological situation remains uncertain, as do prospects for an effective cure or vaccine.

"The priority is to replace quarantines by testing. This is the only way forward in a context where infections keep rising in many countries."

Joining forces with airlines, ANSPs, OEMs, ground handlers, travel retailers and most of the wider tourism sector, we have urged the European Commission to develop an EU Testing Protocol for Travel. Besides the survival of our industries and the livelihoods of our extensive workforce, this is about restoring one of the founding pillars of the EU: the free movement of people.

Together with A4E and IATA – we have thus tabled proposals on how such a protocol could work from an operational standpoint. The potential for the testing of travellers before departure to help reduce transmission risks in local communities as well as during air travel is there. We are convinced that testing travellers can contribute to the common EU testing strategy and this must be part of a more effective response to the pandemic. And while there are of course many issues that need to be addressed, testing capabilities are improving apace.

We need to get the ball rolling – and aside from ICAO’s work on an international standard for testing travel, we are pleased to see EASA and ECDC now working on an EU protocol for testing air travellers.

Getting back on the path to recovery is urgent for aviation - and for Europe. Pouring even more billions into selected airlines is not what will get our sector on its feet, nor what it will take to restore the air connectivity that society has come to rely upon. We simply need people to be able to fly – not just safely, but also with full confidence about their travel plans.

"Getting back on the path to recovery is urgent for aviation."

The urgency is not purely about restarting travel in the short term, critical though this is. Aviation will face renewed challenges in the post COVID-19 era. The earlier the recovery, the better we will be able to address these challenges and adapt. Many are talking about COVID-19 triggering a “great reset” across the economy. This is especially true for aviation.

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The initial thoughts that the pandemic would be followed by a V-shaped recovery quickly gave way to predictions of a U-shaped recovery. Soon, some started talking about a W-shaped recovery, due to the risks of a second infection wave – which by all accounts is in the making. But what we are facing actually looks much more like a K-shaped recovery – in which some sectors are doing great (think tech and health) while others will keep struggling and sub-perform.

It is self-evident that aviation will be in the second category. Beyond the handicap of a slow and tedious recovery with lasting supply-side pressures induced by airlines generally flying fewer and smaller aircraft, what lies ahead is structurally lower demand for air transport. This will result from the combination of several factors. With inequality increasing as a by-product of COVID-19, many people will have to cut discretionary consumption. Travel and leisure activities will logically be on top of the list. More generally, the pandemic is throwing our lifestyles and development model into question.

It is magnifying and accelerating a societal shift towards sustainability that was already in the making. Slowness and happy localism are becoming the new cool. Taking the fast lane and jetting around Europe less so. While millennials are addicted to flying, generation Z is much less prone to ignoring its carbon footprint. These are our future clients.

Looking at demand from corporates, COVID-19 proved that video conferencing works and that executives do not necessarily need to be top tier frequent fliers. Combined with the imperative to both cut costs and demonstrate climate credentials, this explains why McKinsey sees business travel shrinking by -20% by 2024.

Without even factoring the very tangible – many would actually say inevitable – risk of more punitive policies and regulations impacting all fossil fuel intensive sectors, it is clear that the entire aviation eco-system will need to adapt to a new normal.

"It is clear that the entire aviation eco-system will need to adapt to a new normal. Business models will need to change."

Business models will need to change. Just looking at airports, the fact that our own business model has both relied upon and been driven by the assurance of continued dynamic growth in air traffic is a case in point. This is something we will be addressing at our (virtual) Annual Congress on 17 November.

Anticipating and embracing societal changes and economic transformation will be the most important agenda for aviation, both as we recover from COVID-19 and beyond. But succeeding on our own will be challenging. Disruption will also be needed from policy makers, so that they provide the enabling regulatory framework. That should mean finally burying the ultimate legacy: the Chicago convention – and even more important, the legacy thinking that still permeates too many regulatory approaches.

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