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Airlines frustrated and pandemic weary

The world’s aviation chiefs, or most of them, met after a long drought of face-to-face dialogue at the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) 77th AGM earlier this month. The Boston gathering reinforced the pandemic weary sector’s frustration with the politics of managing the pandemic. Associate editor and chief correspondent, Tom Ballantyne, reports.

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October 1st 2021

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It may have been a relief for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to hold an actual in-person AGM, particularly after the postponement and then unavoidable cancellation of the annual gathering planned for Amsterdam in 2020. Read More » But if there was a common theme running through the commentary of speakers and on the delegate floor it was a deep frustration with the slow path of recovery for the industry strongly influenced by the snail like pace of governments in lifting border and quarantine restrictions.

A majority of the world’s airline leaders did manage to attend the Boston AGM, although some delegates could not, including China’s leading aviation bosses, because of their country’s travel restrictions. They had to tune in on-line.

The result was a hybrid gathering that discussed everything from the environment and sustainability to the future of stellar performer, air cargo, during the pandemic. But it was, of course, dominated by a single issue: how to restore the industry to the pre-pandemic levels of 2019?

Ultimately, it was an AGM where the messages we have been hearing for more than 18 months had to be reinforced: flying is safe, with testing and vaccination rates increasing restrictions such as border closures and quarantine can be lifted, global standards needed for the adoption of vaccine passports and testing and governments must accepting Covid-19 is here to stay and living with it.

Unfortunately, they are messages many governments, particularly in the Asia-Pacific, have been and are continuing to ignore.

On the environment front, AGM delegates approved a resolution for the global air transport industry to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but even that vote was not a surprise given many member airlines already had announced their intention to meet that target.

Industry providers such as Embraer, GE Aviation and others were among those congratulating airlines on their official confirmation of the resolution.

But after 20 months of a pandemic during which carriers have grounded a large portion of their fleets, adjusted networks, dropped routes altogether, juggled schedules on an almost daily basis and coped with a myriad of complex and different health rules - not to mention massive losses and accelerating debt levels - to some it seemed there was no end in sight to the crisis.

In 2020, airline chiefs were saying 2021 would be better. Then along came the Delta variant and now they are predicting 2022 will be better.

But there is one thing the AGM audience did know. It is not only do airlines want to fly. Their customers want to fly. There is pent up demand among customers to return to the air and to travel. “People are increasingly frustrated with COVID-19 travel restrictions and even more of them have seen their quality of life suffer as a result of quarantine and closed borders,” delegates were told.

They don’t see the necessity for travel restrictions to control the virus. And they have missed too many family moments, personal development opportunities and business priorities because of them. In short, they miss the freedom of flying and want it restored. The message airlines are sending to governments is: COVID-19 is not going to disappear, so we must establish the means to manage its risks while living and traveling normally,” IATA director general, Willie Walsh, said.

There is no doubt the demand was there, as proven by the rise in bookings any time restrictions are lifted, he said.

It was a viewpoint echoed by JetBlue CEO, Robin Hayes, the U.S. carrier that hosted the Boston AGM. When the U.S. announced in late September it would be opening its borders in November to allow fully vaccinated travellers from 33 countries to enter the country, JetBlue bookings increased by 900%, Hayes said.

At the AGM, IATA released a survey conducted in September that showed 67% of respondents thought the borders of most countries should be opened now, up 12 percentage points from a June 2021 IATA survey. Approximately 64% of respondents believed border closures are unnecessary and have not been effective in containing the virus - up 11 percentage points from June 2021.

Seventy three per cent of respondents said their quality of life is suffering as a result of COVID-19 travel restrictions, an increase of six percentage points over the June poll. The survey was conducted with 4,700 respondents in 11 country markets, including Australia, India, Japan, Singapore and the UAE in the Asia-Pacific and Gulf regions.

With vaccination rates increasing globally, 80% of respondents agreed vaccinated people should be able to travel freely by air. However, there was opposition to making vaccination a condition of air travel. About two-thirds of those surveyed believe it is morally wrong to restrict travel to vaccinated individuals.

More than 80% of the survey’s recipients viewed testing before air travel as an alternative for people without access to vaccination.

The biggest deterrent to air travel continues to be quarantine measures. An overwhelming 84% of respondents indicated they would not travel if there was a chance of quarantine at their destination. An increasing proportion of respondents support the removal of quarantine if a person has tested negative for COVID-19 (73% in September compared with 67% in June) or if a person has been vaccinated (71% in September compared with 68% in June).

However, there were some anomalies in the poll results. While 71% of those surveyed thought the air quality on an aircraft matches the hygiene standards of a hospital operating theatre, 59% said they feared the air quality on a plane is dangerous. This thinking seems to indicate, despite an intense campaign involving scientific studies by IATA, Boeing, Airbus and others to show flying is one of the safest places to be during the pandemic, that this message has not got through to a large proportion of the flying public.

At the AGM, Walsh said the survey showed people wanted to travel and 86% expected to be traveling within six months of the crisis ending. “With COVID-19 becoming endemic, vaccines being widely available and therapeutics improving rapidly, we are quickly approaching that point in time. People also tell us they are confident to travel. But what those who have traveled are telling us is the rules are too complex and the paperwork too onerous,” he said.

“To secure the recovery, governments must simplify processes, restore the freedom to travel and adopt digital solutions to issue and manage travel health credentials.

“People are willing to be tested to travel. But they don’t like the cost or the inconvenience. Both can be addressed by governments. The reliability of rapid antigen tests is recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO). Broader acceptance of antigen testing by governments would reduce inconvenience and cost—costs the WHO’s International Health Regulations stipulate should be borne by governments.

“It also is clear people accept testing and other measures such as mask-wearing as necessary, but they want to return to more normal ways of travel when it is safe to do so.”

While nothing is certain given the nature of the pandemic and the ever present threat of new variants, Asia-Pacific airline leaders and their counterparts worldwide hope 2022 brings better times for the industry and that when they meet next June for the 78th IATA AGM in Shanghai, a recovery will be underway. Even then, they are aware a full return to 2019 air traffic levels, particularly in long-haul markets, is not likely to eventuate until 2024 or 2025.

* Tom Ballantyne “attended” the AGM virtually, unable to fly to the U.S. because of Australian Government restrictions on international travel.

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