How Will People Fly After COVID-19?By Alicia Arizpe | Thu, 05/14/2020 - 12:46
The COVID-19 outbreak brought the world to a halt. Industries that were booming saw sudden, sharp drops in demand as citizens were urged to stay home to avoid the deadly virus. Among them, aviation was especially hit as demand for international travel plummeted after many countries closed their borders and implemented shelter-in-place measures. Domestic travel also suffered a severe hit, forcing airlines to sharply cut down their operations and ground part of their fleets. However, some countries are starting to relax confinement measures and are studying safe ways to open themselves to foreign visitors and residents living abroad. This raises questions on how to welcome tourism, a significant contributor to many countries’ GDP and key to thousands of jobs, while protecting the safety of residents.
All countries in the world are pondering this question. Two countries that closed their borders and are studying how to open them again are Spain and the UK. Both of them were severely hit by the COVID-19 outbreak but have economies that significantly rely on tourism. For Spain, tourism is the largest contributor to the country’s GDP, bringing a total of €191 billion (US$206 billion) in 2018 or 15 percent of that years’ GDP. In the UK, tourism contributes £106 billion (US$129 billion) and generates 2.6 million jobs. These countries have proposed opening their borders but quarantining every single visitor or returning national for two weeks.
The move has drawn significant alarm among industry representatives, especially airlines, as this move could further complicate the recovery of an industry that was severely hit by the COVID-19 outbreak. The aviation industry is estimated to lose US$314 billion during 2020, according to IATA, thanks to global anti-COVID-19 measures. Just during March, revenue passenger kilometers (RPK) fell by 52.9 percent, the sharpest decline in recent history, according to IATA. Most airlines across the globe have been placed under a heavy burden by the pandemic and some have been crushed by it. For instance, Avianca entered bankruptcy under Chapter 11 in a US court in order to protect its operations and restructure its finances to face the COVID-19 pandemic. The airline had seen an overwhelming drop in demand as about 88 percent of its destinations were under total or partial travel restrictions, which cut its revenue by 80 percent. Airlines fear that quarantine periods will further reduce the desire to travel. IATA had observed that 69 percent of recent travelers had indicated that they would avoid travel if they were required to undergo a quarantine period and 89 percent were concerned about these measures.
Another proposed solution has been to give those who have recovered from COVID-19 an “immunity passport.” Under this proposal, individuals would undergo blood tests to detect antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 and, if they have them, they would be granted a certificate that declares them free to travel under the assumption that they are protected against the infection. Some countries such as the UK, the US and Chile have analyzed this measure. China is implementing a similar approach. The Asian giant gives its citizens a QR code after they report their travel history and whether they have been in contact with COVID-19 patients. The code changes color depending on the user’s health and is used so far to allow people to enter restaurants and shopping malls.
Mexico’s National Chamber of Air Transport (CANAERO) suggested a proposal along these lines by having the country’s Ministry of Health grant healthy citizens a certificate that declares them free of the infection. The chamber believes that this measure could help reactivate the industry but this is just a proposal on its early stages. The tourism sector is key to Mexico’s economic development as it accounts to 8.7 percent of the country’s GDP and generates 2.3 million jobs. On the other hand, the country’s aviation industry is responsible of 97,000 direct jobs and 437,000 indirect ones.
However, experts deem the measure as dangerous as it is still uncertain whether those who recovered from COVID-19 are immune to it. The World Health Organization (WHO), warned that “as of 24 April 2020, no study has evaluated whether the presence of antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 confers immunity to subsequent infection by this virus in humans.” Others are questioning the reliability of these tests, including the US’ Anthony Fauci, as antibodies may take weeks to develop after the initial infection, meaning the test would detect if someone had the disease at some point in their lives not if they are currently contagious. This should be enough reason to give pause to these plans until more information is obtained. Chile, which would have been the first country to implement such a measure, stepped back from this plan on May 11.
As countries analyze the safest ways to support the return of visitors to the country, airlines are strengthening their sanitary measures to entice potential travelers back in the air. Among the measures supported by airlines is the use of face masks by all passengers and crew, which IATA calls a critical part of the layered approach to restart the industry. Other measures being proposed include temperature screening of passengers, increasing the frequency of cabin sanitation, restricting movement inside the cabin during flights and alterations to boarding procedures that reduce contact among passengers and crew. Aeroméxico, for instance, is embracing this measure and has made the use of face masks mandatory for passengers and crew for all its flights. Other airlines are expected to follow suit as the industry searches for ways to restore passenger confidence and restart a sector that has been badly hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic.