Coronavirus and Aviation – What Next?

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(Cover image – a British Airways plane waits on the runway at London City Airport. The airport is currently closed due to the Coronavirus outbreak, aside from military/training purposes)

Over the last couple of months, the changes made across the world to reduce the spread of Coronavirus have impacted every area of our lives, but few more so than travel. Since 23rd March, the message from the UK Government has been to ‘Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’. The vast majority of the British public have been following this guideline, so aside from repatriation flights (most of these early on in the outbreak), the amount of passenger air travel has been a fraction of its normal volume.

This video by NATS gives a striking visual comparison of air traffic on a typical Wednesday in May 2020 compared to May 2019, and it shows a 88% reduction in traffic – the vast majority of those still operating are transporting cargo (even passenger planes are being used primarily to carry cargo at present!) so the reduction in passenger travel to/from/within the UK is actually comfortably over the 90% mark.

90% less passenger traffic means a roughly equivalent reduction in income for airlines, ground handlers and airport operators. This is simply unsustainable – whilst the Government’s furlough scheme is taking the burden of staffing costs off the aviation industry, this is one of many fixed costs, so these companies are all likely to struggle if the drop in passenger aviation traffic continues at the same rate much longer.

There have, in the last week or so, been the first signs of growth, and I was fairly optimistic that over the next couple of months, we may get limited recovery of passenger air travel to and from the UK….

That was, until this story broke over the weekend:

Before I go any further, I’ll point out that I have no issues with this being implemented, if done correctly, for as long as the public health crisis warrants it, and that as I write this, it’s not yet 7pm and we’re still awaiting for the detail of the announcement, however…

I’m very concerned that the impact of this on the UK travel industry hasn’t been thought through. As I note above, the details aren’t yet clear, but (enforcement of the restrictions aside – the Independent article linked in the above Tweet talks more about the problems there so I won’t repeat these here) there are a couple of issues that immediately jump out at me as problematic based on the information we have so far:

  • There’s (rightly, in my view) an exception for UK & ROI flights – how are the Government going to ensure that people transiting via Dublin are told to self isolate, whilst those on the same plane that started their journey in Ireland are allowed through?
  • What measures are going to be put in place to monitor the necessity for the restrictions and ensure that these are only in place for as long as strictly necessary?
  • What financial assistance is going to be in place for the UK travel agencies, tour operators and the aviation industry as a whole, who are going to face a huge drop off in bookings for as long as this restriction is in place?

This last question is a key one for me, and the devil is going to be in the detail – I’ll update this blog after the announcement if any details do emerge that change my thoughts, but taking the details which have already been made available at face-value, I’m very concerned. As noted, a 14 day mandatory quarantine is likely to kill off virtually all business travel and a large proportion of discretionary (leisure) travel for as long as the restriction is in place.

Some would argue that we’re only following what other countries are doing – but here’s my issue: the vast majority of other quarantine restrictions are only for their own residents returning home. Unless a big detail has been omitted from the initial leaks that we’re closing our borders to non-residents (which would bring up its own set of, in my view, bigger issues!), these other countries’ guidelines are for their own returning citizens. There’s no indication that we’re going to decline entry to other countries’ residents.

A far more sensible system (considering that these restrictions are likely to not come in place immediately, more as an addition to the next stage of the Government’s Coronavirus plan once the initial ‘lockdown’ is adjusted in 3 weeks or so) would, in my view, be to have a system similar to Japan but using the plethora of empty hotels around the UK’s airports. All arriving passengers would take a Coronavirus test as a condition of entry, they would then stay in an airport hotel (at their own expense) whilst the test is processed, and if the test was found negative they would be permitted entry. Those testing positive would be required to remain at the airport hotel until they tested negative, or for more serious cases be transferred into medical care.

This would be beneficial to both returning UK residents, who can book summer holidays abroad with the confidence that they’ll only need to isolate for a short period of time upon their return to the UK, and also inspire more confidence in those looking to visit from abroad rather than discouraging them totally, particularly as the country opens up. I’m not saying it’s a magic bullet and demand for passenger aviation is still only going to be a fraction of a ‘normal’ summer, but it’d be progress compared to the current situation.

It’s also worth noting that for the above system to be effective we’d need to get our case numbers down first, but bearing in mind this is likely to be 3 weeks from now (and the numbers are trending downwards currently despite an increase in testing, see the graph below) there’s still time.

As stated earlier in the article, I’ll update this blog post as further details emerge – and as always any feedback/questions are welcome in the comments below.

Update after Boris’ announcement: As predicted, not a huge amount of detail on the quarantine measures was forthcoming this evening – will be keeping an eye on it over the next few days and will post my thoughts on any major new developments in a separate blog post.

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