Can Air Transport recover whilst maintaining COVID-19 Travel Controls?

A variety of strategies to control COVID-19 infection have been applied

The air transport sector is facing a major crisis as air travel demand has been heavily impacted by a number of factors which affect passenger confidence, combined with government restrictions which directly affect air travel. Passenger air transport was a principal vector for the global transmission of the COVID-19 pandemic and the biggest challenge now, is how to recover air travel volumes whilst maintaining controls which aim to avoid or limit the importation of infection via International arrivals passengers.

Different countries have adopted a range of strategies

Different countries have implemented a range of measures aimed to control the importation and spread of the virus via International arrivals, which have affected air travel to different degrees:

Source: BBC, UK Government, UK CAA & ALG Analysis

Coordination & travel bubbles are considered to be key for air traffic recovery. Initiatives are being considered to replace or reduce quarantine with rapid testing from higher-risk areas.

Quarantine has been proven to act as a major deterrent to air travel demand

Case Study: UK Air Traffic

After passing the first wave of the outbreak with virtually no controls on air travel, in June the UK adopted blanket quarantine for International arrivals. After the EU formed a travel bubble, in July the UK briefly exempted several EU nations creating travel corridors. Although others were added, some of the largest markets have since been removed and quarantine re-imposed (Spain, France, Portugal & Italy), meaning most International arrivals to the UK  have to quarantine.

EUROCONTROL provides data on UK’s Air Traffic Movements (ATMs), arrivals and departures were effectively close to 0 during the months of May and June. The situation began to change once destination travel restrictions were relaxed resulting in an ATM increase. There have been signs of recovery in July when quarantine was not in place for some key markets until the beginning of August, when more countries were re-introduced in the quarantine list.

During August, flight activity remained constant, mainly due to the quarantine measures. This is further demonstrated by the fact that different nations with fewer quarantine measures experienced a higher increase of aeronautical activity during the peak summer season (-45% in France, -52% in Germany, -40% in Greece and -49% in Italy, compared to a steady -60% in the UK). Passenger confidence and willingness to travel, had already been heavily damaged because of travel restrictions, flight cancellations and health and safety concerns. However, the initiative of touristic destinations to remove travel bans imposed on the UK is believed to have had a positive impact on demand. Nevertheless, quarantine measures had a major negative effect on passenger growth during August, resulting in an almost zero-growth trend extending until today.

United Kingdom (Arr/Dep ATMs; May ‘20 – October ‘20)

Source: BBC, EUROCONTROL & ALG Analysis

  • With the development of rapid testing Industry stakeholders have been pressing the UK Government to replace quarantine on arrival from high-risk areas with arrivals testing. LHR proposed a pilot initiative to open up the lucrative US market, with tests before departure and after a short quarantine on arrival. However, a new testing facility at LHR has remained unused since August.
  • The UK Government has avoided making a decision and announced the creation a taskforce to further investigate the options, which may delay any changes to quarantine until December.
  • Apparently options being considered include an arrivals test after a shorter 1 week quarantine or a more ambitious test days prior to departure with a much shorter quarantine and arrivals test.
  • In the meantime, International air traffic continues to be heavily restricted and demand suppressed.

Can quarantine be replaced or reduced with rapid testing?

Quarantine: Is there a viable alternative?

Source: IATA, ICAO & ALG Analysis

  • According to IATA’s Air Traveller Response to COVID-19 carried out in June 2020, one of the biggest blocks to industry recovery is quarantine. Some 85% of travellers reported concern of being quarantined while travelling, a similar level to those reporting anxiety over catching the virus (84%).
  • Among the measures that travellers were willing to accept in adapting to travel during or after the pandemic, only 17% reported that they were willing to undergo quarantine. Effectively this indicates that quarantine is deterring both leisure and business trips.
  • Citing IATA’s CEO Alexandre de Juniac, if governments want to re-start their tourism sectors, alternative risk-based measures are needed. Many are built into the ICAO take-off guidelines, such as health screening before departure to discourage symptomatic passengers from travelling.
  • In addition, quarantine should be replaced or reduced by rapid testing which has to be consistently applicable for passengers travelling throughout a determined region depending on the area’s risk level (EU/EEA or ASEAN+ for instance). In low and medium-risk areas limited restrictions should apply, while in high-risk areas, testing should be compulsory.
  • Major aviation bodies in Europe (ACI, A4E, IATA) have proposed a COVID-19 testing protocol which along with enhanced cleaning and masks, incorporates mass rapid cross-border testing for passengers travelling from high-risk areas, eliminating or reducing the need for quarantine

About the authors
Robert Appleton holds a BSc in Construction Engineering and Management and an MBA and is a Director at ALG
Patricia Prieto holds a BSc in Aerospace Vehicle Engineering and an MSc in Air Transport Management and is a Consultant at ALG
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