A recovery path for airlines

The government and industry should collaborate to develop a sustainable restart strategy

Updated - June 24, 2021 12:28 am IST

Published - June 24, 2021 12:15 am IST

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After months of closing their borders, regions that have contained the spread of COVID-19 are trying to find ways of reopening their borders. However, there are many apprehensions in doing this. It is not easy for governments to reopen their borders, allow traffic and still keep the virus away.

Airlines have been battling uncertainty since March 2020. In April 2020, two thirds of the global fleet of aircraft was grounded, but essential operations were not halted. By raising private capital, receiving government support, cutting costs to the bone, and flying more to transport goods, etc., many airlines have managed to prevent bankruptcy.


Restarting operations

It is challenging for airlines to figure out how they are going to restart operations when customer demand returns to pre-COVID-19 levels. As the vaccination programme unfolds in different parts of the world, it is critical to restart air travel with an internationally reliable, acceptable and harmonious approach. The government and industry should collaborate to develop a sustainable ‘restart strategy’. Such a strategy should use a science-based approach and specify how nations must deal with vaccinated and non-vaccinated passengers, how quarantine and testing measures will be adjusted, and how appropriate electronic capture of health data to facilitate international travel can be ensured. It is possible to have a flexible policy. Tools can be developed to continually monitor the risk profiles of different regions.

For India, the large domestic aviation market is a saviour. Collaboration among the States will be critical to ensure the effective restart of the aviation industry. Different testing and quarantine requirements have already created a lot of confusion. As done in natural calamity protocols, a framework establishing clear rules, processes and standards needs to be in place according to the situation. Local actions need to be taken whenever risks are identified, and a consistent policy should be followed. In recent times, micro-containment zones have been helpful over blanket lockdowns in containing infections.

It is time to focus on substituting blanket restrictions with testing, vaccination and limited quarantine measures. Tests and vaccines will jointly play a key role in the industry’s recovery. Vaccination can be a requirement to travel but should co-exist with testing regimes. It should be considered as a progressive step towards safe travel. Imposing compulsory vaccination as a pre-requisite for air travel will only further impact the sector. It is going to take some time to fully vaccinate everyone who wants to be vaccinated. In the meantime, until the population worldwide is significantly vaccinated, it is important to have robust and stable testing protocols, along with interoperable digital solutions. Implementing widespread COVID-19 antigen testing before departure is key to restarting air travel. The Indian Council of Medical Research approved self-testing COVID-19 kits called CoviSelf, which could come in handy.

Vaccine passports

Digital travel passes and vaccine passports may be another solution. But in order to work, these will require standardisation across borders. Internationally, there is concern that governments may not cooperate or establish shared principles for opening their borders. The concept of vaccine passports is illogical if the same vaccines are not recognised in all the countries. For example, the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, which are generally recognised as examples of vaccines that will be used as a pre-requirement for vaccine passports, are only accessible in 72 and 74 countries, respectively.

Uneven travel restrictions and passenger demand are driving the need for flexibility and speed in decision-making processes. This is seen across multiple serviceable areas, including long-term fleet planning, network planning, and revenue management. In the present scenario, a network plan needs to be rethought and reworked, as there may be the possibility of different segments in different parts of the network opening and closing depending on the uncertainty of the pandemic and the demand.

The next few years will be challenging for the aviation industry. The actions taken by governments and industry will determine how long it takes for the industry to recover. If the aviation industry has to recover, governments need to come up with consistent policies based on evidence, and industry should do whatever it can to reinstate passenger confidence, embrace new ways of making revenue, and new operational demands. This is the call of the hour even if this means moving outside the comfort zone.

Usha Padhee is Joint Secretary and Aditya Tiwari is a former Young Professional in the Ministry of Civil Aviation, Government of India. Views are personal

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