The Airlines Association of Southern Africa (AASA) has warned the governments of the region that the continuation of “inconsistent and arbitrary” air travel restrictions (to counter the Covid-19 pandemic) were endangering economic recovery and future growth. As a result, almost five-million jobs were at risk.
The association also called on the countries of Southern Africa to emphasise support for the whole of their air travel and tourism sectors. This would include airlines (both private and public sector), air navigation (air traffic control) services, airports, ground handlers, safety regulators, suppliers and allied enterprises.
“Not a single aviation industry stakeholder has been spared,” highlighted AASA CEO Chris Zweigenthal.
He was addressing the recent AASA fiftieth Annual General Meeting, which was held virtually. “Every organisation relying on revenue for airline operations and passengers is affected, with traumatic social and financial consequences. Governments can and must provide support to the entire industry as the as the recovery of their economies is heavily dependent upon it.”
AASA pointed out that there were a range of options for governments to choose from to support their aviation and tourism sectors. These included direct funding, government-guaranteed loans, and reductions or waivers of charges and taxes. Also important, to avoid extending the economic distress and harm, would be the adoption of clear, consistent, procedures for the resumption of all categories of international and regional travel.
Even before the pandemic struck, the region’s airlines were facing an increasingly tough financial environment, he pointed out. Only a few of them were profitable, with most of those few being privately-owned. Other airlines were dependent on some type of government support to keep operating. And, again before Covid-19 hit, AASA member State-owned airlines South African Airways and South African Express had both been placed in business rescue (in December and February respectively). After the arrival of the disease in the region and the subsequent national lockdowns and travel bans, South African private-sector airline group Comair had also entered business rescue.
“The pandemic and lockdowns have been catastrophic for aviation,” he stated bluntly.
“The health and safety of our customers have always been our primary concern and so we supported the initial ‘hard’ lockdowns. But the restrictions inflicted severe harm across many sectors of the economy, not least on aviation, travel and tourism.”
In South Africa alone, the number of airline passengers this year has been 68% down on the figure for 2019, with 40 000 direct aviation jobs and 270 000 aviation-related jobs put at risk.
“We welcomed the reopening of South Africa’s borders last week, but there needs to be clarity on the risk classification of States by which leisure travellers are either approved or denied entry,” he stressed.
“The South African government should explain why it has superimposed these additional restrictions onto the set of risk-mitigating health and safety protocols it had already developed and approved for the safe reopening of the borders. It should also explain its criteria for reducing, or better still, scrapping these lists and lifting the ban on tourists from certain countries. If they are maintained, our industry and the entire regional economy will face a much slower and arduous recovery.”
He called for direct, open door and open-minded talks between the aviation sector and government Ministers and director-generals. The purpose would be to address the policy, strategic and practical matters necessary to allow airline operations to safely restart, stimulating a regional economic recovery, without undermining public health and safety.