By Vivek Pattanayak in Bhubaneswar, October 9, 2020: Clouds over air transport are still not fully cleared as much as the stakeholders would like to see. Perhaps it is time for a review of the current scenario as the events unfold with passage of time.

International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Airport Council International (ACI) – the principal aviation bodies of the world representing countries, airlines and airports; have mirrored a very gloomy picture indicating traffic reduction up to 59% from 2019.

The assessment is primarily based on IMF’s picture of the global economy and WTO’s outlook of merchandise trade and World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) assessment of loss of tourist revenue, and actual state of aircraft movements following travel restrictions. However, the Madrid based global tourism organization, UNWTO has been urging countries, industry and other involved parties to take a positive attitude advocating for promotion of safe tourism asserting that tourism can be a robust platform for overcoming the contraction caused by heavy lockdown due to pandemic by getting people together supporting solidarity and trust among them.

Tourism, in general and international tourism in particular is heavily dependent on revival of air transport. Many airlines have folded up during this period. Some big behemoths have taken heavy debilitating losses. IATA has predicted that no pre-Covid-19 level operation is foreseeable till 2024.

Hotels and hospitality industry including travel agencies depend upon travellers. Moreover, domestic tourism can start with road transport and railway and through domestic flights which are within the decision-making domain of the national governments.

International flights require bilateral agreements among the countries. Of late agreements are being reached for air corridor and air bubble, as they are called today in aviation parlance. ICAO has given guidelines on air corridor considering International Health Regulations of 2005 and Aviation Medicine guidance materials in consultations with WHO, IATA and ACI based on which international flights can re-start. This has come after a technical task force constituted by ICAO submitted its report.

Digital solutions and contactless inspection of baggage and security checks are envisaged covering health and hygiene. Inflight sanitization, hygiene kits, use of PPEs, and thermal checks are part of the newly established procedures to create air bubble. Resilience and adaptability of passengers have always been seen since the time the security checks were introduced after frequency of unlawful interference with civil aviation caused by hijacking, bomb attacks on civil aircraft, airports etc. Rigorous procedures followed both at departure and arrival terminals including pre-boarding checks conducted by airlines particularly after 9/11 have been accepted by passengers despite curtailment of facilitation procedures.

During this prolonged lockdown, many airlines have suffered revenue loss for which bailout packages have been given by their respective governments. Lufthansa, SAS and some European carriers had received such assistance in August. Meanwhile USA has given such packages under the Cares Act to airlines covering US25 billion.

Singapore has removed travel restrictions from Australia and Vietnam. No more quarantine is being insisted upon although tests are mandatory. American Airlines have decided to do tests for their flights to Jamaica and Hawaii. Air Mauritius is cautiously restarting international flights. Dubai has commenced airline operations.

India has started domestic flights since June. Volume of traffic and number of flights are slowly increasing. EU opened its sky to 15 countries. Spain heavily dependent upon tourism opened its beaches.

Costa Rica, known as Switzerland of Americas, another country dependent upon international tourism for its economy also opened its airports to UK, Spain, Germany, and some selected States of USA and recently to Mexico. Canada will be in the next in line. Australia has planned air corridor for restarting air services. China’s domestic traffic is likely to reach 90% of 2019 level.

In Latin America possibility of recovery of air transport before 2021 is less likely according to the Vice President of IATA. Interestingly, Colombia has made good progress in domestic traffic although it is still at -40% of pre-Covid level. International traffic continues to be exceptionally low. Argentina has not done well both in domestic and international segments. Countries are not allowing foreign passengers because of fear of infection although they have allowed repatriation ferry flights for their citizens.

Testing protocol should be adopted. Fear psychosis must be fought to restart. The region has a growing middle class who do travel and push the growth of tourism industry. Therefore, the governments must take proactive steps to reactivate travel industry. Need for bail out packages is felt.

WHO’s assessment of pandemic indicates the world will live with virus for an unforeseeable future although the availability of vaccine may change the course. Business travels are being contemplated with executive jets, charters and fractional equipment by HNIs. Exclusive club of ultra-rich tourism to the unexplored but safe destinations like islands of South Pacific region and the African destinations with pristine ambience may grow if the lockdown persists with vaccine still not available since pent-up desire to travel is irresistible. Boeing 200 struggling for its viability may find a market with this development.

Responsible tourism according to UNWTO has encouraged many destinations to free restrictions. Ocean cruises and river tourism can be the new areas of safe tourism. Already Singapore has contemplated ocean tourism without any specific destination.

In addition to the crisis with airlines, airports who depend upon from revenues from landings also go through the present period of financial loss and uncertain viability having consequences regarding retention of personnel. Air navigation services where they are corporatized also suffer from revenue loss as there is less of revenue from route navigational charges. Less number of flights mean less meteorological data as the flights on route also send information regarding weather.

Apart from all these effects ,the airlines in the past have turned bankrupt after regional wars, financial crisis and events like deadly terrorist attacks example being 9/11. In USA after the twin tower destruction, airline insolvencies and resultant bankruptcies took place. It also brought consolidation of airlines after drastic trimming of cost, lay-offs, retrenchment, furloughs etc. reducing dominance of eight large airlines to four in the American air transport market. After Covid 19 the repetition of this phenomenon is clearly visible and in fact it has already taken place.

Another interesting result has been storage of aircraft to avoid corrosion in the right place based on weather condition. A large fleet of A380 aircraft of Singapore Airlines have now been stored in Alice in Australia taking advantage of dry climate there to avoid corrosion.

Recommencement of flights should be preceded by rigorous maintenance of equipment and simulator training and practices involving flight crew , air traffic controllers and aircraft engineers keeping in view established safety procedures for aircraft, airports and air navigation.

In this background, Boeing has decided to restart B737 Max, the variant of equipment grounded since last several months after the Ethiopian air disaster preceded by Lion Air crash. More significant is that Boeing 787 will come back to market. Most interesting news is that Air Bus has made an exciting announcement that it would introduce liquid hydrogen propelled aircraft by 2035 to meet the new standards laid by the Paris Accord on climate change, which can operate at a speed of 0.78 Mach. All these reflect signs of optimism in air transport domain.
“O, Wind, if winter comes can spring be far behind”.

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