Air transport bodies appeal for responsible action amid Covid-19 disruptions

27th March 2020 By: Rebecca Campbell - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

The International Air Transport Association (Iata) reacted to US President Donald Trump’s bans on citizens and residents of European countries from travelling to the US by affirming that the organisation and its members would maintain their support for governments in their attempts to contain Covid-19 (the novel coronavirus disease), recognising that governments had to take the steps they regard as essential, but calling for the support of the increasingly battered airline industry worldwide. It also urged all governments to follow World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines regarding Covid-19.

“Governments must impose the measures they consider necessary to contain the virus,” stated Iata director-general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac. “And they must be fully prepared to provide support to buffer the economic dislocation that this will cause. In normal times, air transport is a catalyst for economic growth and development. Suspending travel on such a broad scale will create negative consequences across the economy. Governments must recognise this and be ready to support.”

Last year, the number of flights scheduled between the US and the Schengen common visa area of Europe (that is, excluding the UK and the Republic of Ireland) totalled some 200 000, or about 550 a day. The number of passengers flown between the two areas came to about 46-million, an average of 125 000 every day. The total value of the US-Schengen Area market last year was $20.6-billion. Within this market, the three biggest bilateral markets were the US-Germany (worth $4-billion), US-France ($3.5-billion) and US-Italy ($2.9-billion) markets.

“This [US decision] will create enormous cash-flow pressures for airlines,” he emphasised. “Airlines will need emergency measures to get through this crisis. Governments should be looking at all possible means to assist the industry through these extreme circumstances . . . Air transport is vital, but without a lifeline from governments, we will have a sectoral financial crisis piled on top of the public health emergency.”

Worldwide, airlines employ some 2.7-million people. In a report issued on March 5, Iata estimated that the global Covid-19 crisis could cut total airline revenues by about $113-billion. That estimate was made before the travel bans by the US and other countries were announced.

The WHO has cautioned that, while travel bans may be justified at the start of an epidemic outbreak, to win time for countries to better prepare themselves, they should only be of short duration. When implemented, they should be based on careful risk assessments, be proportionate to the risk to public health, and regularly reconsidered in light of the evolving situation.

“We urge the US and other governments that have placed travel restrictions to follow the WHO guidance,” stressed De Juniac. “This is fast evolving. Health and safety are the top priorities for governments and the air transport sector. But the effectiveness and necessity of travel restrictions must be continuously reviewed.”

Meanwhile, the Airlines Association of Southern Africa (AASA) has urged people who are feeling unwell not to fly or go to airports. The body highlighted that, while airlines are taking all possible measures to contain Covid-19, passengers also had to exercise responsibility.

The region’s airlines have been implementing precautionary measures against the spread of the disease, following the recommendations of the WHO, the US Centres for Disease Control, the South African Department of Health (National Institute of Communicable Diseases) and Iata. These measures included cleaning and sanitising aircraft cabins (including galleys, catering equipment, overhead baggage storage hatches, lavatories, window blinds, seats, seat-back trays and safety belts).

“Airlines throughout Southern Africa are complying with stringent international and local health and safety measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, but we urge any passengers who are feeling unwell, displaying any respiratory illness symptoms, or who may have come into contact with a carrier of the coronavirus, not to travel to airports or board flights,” affirmed AASA CEO Chris Zweigenthal. “Similarly, people who have recently travelled and who subsequently display symptoms suggestive of respiratory illness should seek medical attention and share their travel history with their healthcare provider.”

Airliner cabins were actually safer than most public areas on the ground. In modern airliners, the cabin air was continually scrubbed, recirculated and replaced, passing through hospital operating theatre-grade HEPA air filters. Also, at South African airports, workers had been supplied with latex gloves and facemasks and were applying hygiene-maintenance and infection-risk-reduction procedures.

However, if a person infected with Covid-19 was on an airliner, there would be an increased risk for the other passengers. Consequently, good personal hygiene – such as covering coughs and sneezes, and regular hand washing with soap and water – and common sense were essential.

“Despite these various measures, among confirmed Covid-19 cases in South Africa are people who recently travelled by air and who may have infected other passengers on the same flights,” he highlighted. “For this reason, we are appealing to all travellers to act responsibility. If you are unwell, please don’t fly. Instead, please see a doctor.”