COVID-19 and aviation: the re-start

Written by: Nick McFarlane
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We are not alone in talking about the 'new normal' that will emerge post-coronavirus in aviation and more widely in society. It seems likely that there will be very long-term ramifications and even permanent changes in behaviour but, in our second blog post in our COVID-19 series, we ask how aviation will emerge from the current 'deep freeze' and what factors will affect this.

Eurocontrol predicts that traffic will be back to about 70-80% of normal levels by the end of the year from a low of 10% in April. The speed of the re-start will be driven by four factors: the travel restrictions in place at either end of a journey, the ability of the industry to provide the necessary services, the social distancing measures required at airports and on planes, and the demand from people to fly.

Travel restrictions

States will emerge from the COVID crisis at different times, and recovery of air travel will depend on what sort of movement restrictions are maintained. Resuming cross-border travel will require coordination between governments and operational stakeholders, with states working together to open their borders. Indeed, there have already been calls for a co-ordinated response to restart the industry and the EU Transport Commissioner has signalled that guidelines will be set out by mid-May regarding an exit strategy to restart cross-border operation. For passengers, some countries might require the results of a coronavirus test before granting visas. This is where we can expect airlines to help facilitate the process – you might add test results to your frequent flyer account or have your temperature checked at the gate. Emirates is already offering a pre-boarding blood test for passengers. Because different countries will reduce restrictions at different times, the airline hub-and-spoke model (which relies on interconnecting passengers between many different countries) is going to take longer to recover. Domestic routes will likely recover first.

Industry capability

The ability of regulated companies to switch their services back on will depend on safety impacts and regulations, for example pilot recency and ongoing aircraft maintenance, as well as staff rostering. The UK Department for Transport (DfT) has set up a restart and recovery unit, that works across Government departments and industry to ensure there is a coordinated approach to resolving key issues. Airlines and ANSPs are already managing the recency of their staff and assets to ensure they stay well prepared. Sadly, we will see some elements of the supply chain disappear as more firms go under in the coming months. However, the industry is competitive and other companies will quickly expand to fill gaps in service provision. This factor will likely be the least significant as the industry is flexible and adept at making operational adjustments to changing circumstances.

Social distancing

The third factor is the social distancing requirements during the travelling process. EasyJet has already considered keeping the middle seat empty on its aircraft. Airports will certainly have lower peak-time capacity if passengers must maintain two metre distances through security, border control and other processes. Staff may need to wear full PPE for some screening processes and new procedures will be necessary. Aircraft may need thorough cleaning between rotations which will increase the turnaround time. Overall, we will see lower levels of capacity and throughput at each stage of the process. This could lead to a re-distribution of traffic from busier (congested) airports to smaller ones, which may require integrated planning at a regional or state level.

Propensity to fly

The last factor is the propensity of people to return to flying. This is perhaps the hardest to predict as social travel and business travel will be affected by different factors. Business is already learning to survive on video conferences and tourism will suffer as the 'easy travel, no restrictions' nature of summer holidays could disappear. People will be cautious about booking too far in advance in case there is a second wave of the virus or airlines/travel firms go bust. Continuous ticket flexibility without penalty might assuage this, as might 'safety kits' for passengers comprising hand sanitizer, face mask and wipes. The public will want confidence that travel insurance will cover COVID-19 health care, repatriation and cancellation costs. These measures will incur costs, although airlines will aim to hold down prices to stimulate the recovery. Regardless, public caution may continue until there is a widespread vaccine available that largely removes this risk and/or new widely applied procedures.

Industry is already focussing on addressing each of these critical factors. Although many adaptations will be needed, we anticipate that the ramp-up will be gradual so there will be time to put in place new arrangements. Already, companies are testing new procedures and preparing for different scenarios. It seems likely that the transition will last a year or two and it will surely be much longer than that before we are all 'back to normal'. The big question is whether the response will be coordinated and collaborative, or fragmented. This could be the moment for true and positive change.

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