The progression of airlines through the COVID-19 pandemic.

 As we head into our 9th month of this pandemic, many industries have taken a heavy hit economically and have seen a drastic scale back of their operation, but one of the hardest hits came at the airline industry. The first action most countries took in the beginning was to close down their borders to attempt to contain the virus. It started with reducing flights from China, but then eventually most countries ended up with hard border closures, with the exception of cargo, emergency, and diplomatic flights.

It is important to split the industry in two, the commercial aviation sector and the cargo sector. The cargo sector in the airline industry has seen a drastic increase in demand as countries are sending aid and medical equipment to each other, in addition to that most people moved from shopping locally to online shopping, adding to the worldwide shipping demand. Some commercial airlines attempted to shift some of their operations to be more cargo oriented to attempt to cut down on their losses; with the likes of Emirates and British airways transforming their passenger planes to cargo planes by removing seats or placing the cargo securely on the seats.

The cabin of a Lufthansa Airbus A330-300 being used to transport cargo- Lufthansa

Most airlines have moved away from this method of cutting down costs as countries have opened back up from their border lockdowns. Countries have implemented various restrictions allowing people from entering their country, where some countries like Oman and New Zealand have continued to block all commercial air travel, and others on the other end of the spectrum have absolutely no restrictions on incoming passengers like Turkey. As things stand both of these options are not feasible. Closing down borders at first was the right decision, as this allowed countries to draw up plans and have a grip on the situation, but this is not a sustainable option for the long run. Eventually people wanted to travel, whether it was for medical reasons, education, business, or in rare cases leisure. On the other hand, opening up the borders with no restrictions might seem appealing, but it poses a serious health risk for the country, and hence affecting them negatively in the short term.

Flyers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport – Chad Davis

The only realistic and viable option is the middle, opening up countries with certain restrictions. The most popular approach, and easiest has been implementing a 14-day quarantine period with a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken a couple days before (varies with each country). Unfortunately, this also is a short-term solution, although better than total border closure.

The safest and most time effective option as things stand is, and is implanted by some countries is as follows: passengers are required to have a negative PCR test taken no more than 96 hours before flying, upon arrival passengers are required to take a PCR test in the airport, and then home quarantine until the results come out (1-3 days depending on the country). Without a doubt this pathway requires a strong logistical network and infrastructure, but countries like the UAE have shown that it is possible.

Emirates cabin crew wearing personal protective equipment – Emirates

For the time being, traveling is still relatively safe, most airlines have adopted strict health restrictions like masks (and in the case of some airlines face shields), and most airlines have HEPA air filters which constantly filter air removing ~99% of all viruses and bacteria in the air, and the air in the cabin is replaced fully approximately every 3 minutes with new air. Airlines have also started thoroughly cleaning planes to ensure safe travel.

Ideally, what we could hope for is creating efficient and cheap testing that can be done right before flying (e.g. a 5-minute test to detect positive cases). This would allow for a ‘sterile cabin’ where all passengers are for sure negative, eliminating risks of flying and quarantine periods.

The airline industry is only going to fully recover when a vaccine is found and the virus is eradicated. Even then, the economical losses the airline will have endured are going to keep an imprint lasting at least a couple years if not more.

Author:

Hassan Jammal
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