Governments must adopt a bold, data-driven strategy for restoring international airline travel to help satisfy pent-up demand for long-haul flights and put commercial aviation on a path to full recovery. That was the core message conveyed by industry executives on July 14 during a panel session that was part of this week’s FIA Connect conference.
IATA director general Willie Walsh said the airline market “remains in a semi-crisis, not because of Covid-19, but because of government restrictions” such as border closures, compulsory Covid testing, and quarantine measures for passengers. The former chief executive of International Airlines Group complained that politicians base decisions on the opening of international air routes on public polling, not on data, and demanded change.
“It's not based on protecting people's lives; it's based on protecting politicians’ careers, and that's why the industry has got to be more assertive in addressing this issue,” said Walsh.
With the industry flying about 1.8 billion people in 2020, there is “no real fear amongst customers getting aboard an aircraft,” Walsh noted, adding that this year he had taken between 20 and 30 flights, all of which were at full capacity.
“It is very clear wherever restrictions are removed, the demand for air travel bounces back very, very quickly,” added Walsh. He pointed to the U.S. and Chinese domestic markets, where leisure traffic has risen above 2019 levels.
“What's preventing people from traveling today?” Walsh asked rhetorically. “It’s not a virus or indeed the risk of the virus because when the restrictions are removed people want to travel and people do travel,” he said.
Politicians must recognize, Walsh argued, that the “risk environment” in which airlines operate today differs from what prevailed before the Covid pandemic began.
While face masks, pre- and post-flight covid testing, high levels of sanitation, and cabin air quality have helped to severely mitigate the risk of Covid infection among passengers, Walsh said, the rollout of the vaccination program has proved a major boost on which the industry is keen to capitalize.
“The vaccine makes a huge difference and should allow us to take a more relaxed approach [to travel],” he said. “Sensible government policies are a way out of this mess and will help us to open up.”
Fellow panellist Nino Judge, founder and chief executive of UK start-up carrier Flypop, supported Walsh's viewpoint. The low-cost, long-haul airline plans to begin services later this year, connecting London’s Stansted Airport with secondary Indian cities including Amritsar, Ahmedabad, and possibly Goa, using leased, single-class Airbus A330s. “We have a pre-vaccinated world and a post-vaccinated world. In the UK, the government has done a great job rolling out its program with millions of people already double-vaccinated,” said Judge.
Judge hopes the achievement will encourage the government to lift the travel ban introduced between the UK and India in April after flights from the subcontinent were blamed for helping to import the Delta-variant of Covid into Europe.
“The vaccination program really opens up the possibility of double-vaccinated Brits going back to India,” said Judge.
Months of tight restrictions on flying between the two countries have created huge pent-up demand from the UK’s Indian diaspora, keen to travel to the country for delayed weddings, funerals, and visits to family members. Judge lost both his parents to Covid, he explained, and wants to go there as soon as possible to scatter their ashes on the Ganges River, which is sacred to Indians of the Hindu faith.
“If, as an industry, we can also put in measures like you go out with a PCR [polymerase chain reaction] test and come back with a PCR test, I think people will do that,” said Judge. He likened the additional requirements to the security measures introduced following the 9/11 terror attacks in the U.S. “Everyone's got used to spending extra time putting their bags through security, no fluids and liquids, et cetera. Customers just need to know what to do and then they will do it,” he said.
It is up to the aviation industry, Judge suggested, to propose recommendations that will give politicians confidence to open the international travel market.
“Governments can say they were advised by the [aviation] experts—as they do with the scientists," he said. "So, if we suggest, for example, this is the route map [to unrestricted travel] for vaccinated passengers, they are covered [should cases rise], and the airlines take the blame.”