After nearly a year of heavily restricted travel, airlines and passengers alike are desperate for a route out of the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, airlines lost in excess of $35 billion and passenger numbers fell by as much as 96%. While this is slowly starting to be clawed back, the travel industry is still in desperate need of a coherent plan for exiting the downturn.
Here’s a look at what that plan might look like:
Airline bosses breathed a sigh of relief over the weekend when the CDC announced that it would not be requiring Covid-19 testing for domestic airline passengers after all.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian had previously called the plan a “horrible idea” and warned that it would lead to a huge decrease in the number of travelers at a time when the airline industry had just started to dust itself off.
Not only would domestic testing make air travel prohibitively expensive for most passengers, but it would also use up huge numbers of Covid-19 tests, which are already in short supply in many parts of the country. Currently more than 1 million people are flying in the US daily and testing these passengers would divert capacity away from hospitals and other sites where testing is essential.
However, while domestic testing would be a waste of resources, international testing will be essential to opening up global travel and guarding against foreign variants of the virus.
A negative coronavirus test result is already a mandatory prerequisite to entering the United States and several other countries, with airlines sending passengers at-home testing kits to use before they fly.
Soon, however, passengers may be able to get a coronavirus test at the airport as part of their check-in process.
United Airlines have begun trialling such a service at their Travel Ready Centers in Newark, San Francisco and LAX airports. Here passengers can receive a rapid coronavirus test in just a few minutes, before uploading their results to the Travel Ready app and carrying on with their journey.
In-airport facilities massively streamline the testing process, ensuring tests are done correctly and to the proper standards for the country you are flying to. In all likelihood this means coronavirus testing will soon become standard airport procedure; like passport control or removing your shoes at security.
Along with testing, another crucial component of the post-Covid roadmap for airlines will be vaccinations.
Airline bosses have long recognised the importance of mass vaccination in reopening international travel, with Delta CEO Ed Bastian hailing the availability of vaccines as a ‘turning point’ in the industry’s fight against the virus.
In this regard the United States is doing rather well, placing fourth in the global vaccine rankings with 16% of the population already receiving at least a first dose.
However, vaccines are still inexplicably not being prioritised for airline staff, despite their obvious risk of infection. This presents a number of challenges, not least that several countries are considering making vaccination a condition of entry, meaning that many pilots and cabin crew may soon not be able to do their jobs.
Meanwhile, in those few countries ahead of the US on vaccination rates, airline staff have been rightly prioritised for inoculation, building up a greater levels of passenger confidence.
Last week, the UAE – currently second in the global vaccine leader board – announced that Ethiad Airways would be launching the first flight with a fully vaccinated crew onboard.
Not to be outdone by their Arab neighbours, vaccine-chart-toppers Israel announced soon afterwards that its flag-carrier El Al had vaccinated all airline staff, including security and service personnel.
The US should take a page out of the books of these vaccine trailblazers and prioritise airline staff for vaccines as soon as possible or risk another cursed year for international travel.
Travel Apps and Vaccine Passports
Joining together these twin prongs of testing and vaccination will be a drive for internationally recognised certifications to ensure that travelers have either tested negative for or been immunised against the virus.
This certification will likely take the form of an app on your phone and will be the modern day successor to yellow fever certificates, with several countries likely to demand proof of your Covid status as a condition of entry.
Last week Greece and Israel trialled a test run of this process by allowing vaccinated passengers to travel freely between the two countries. The Danish government is also reported to be working on similar technology to allow its citizens to come and go more safely.
The key to this process will be the development of an internationally recognised vaccine passport which countries across the world are able to put their trust in. The International Air Transport Association is already in the process of developing such an app called the Travel Pass, which they hope will help unlock global travel this summer.
While all this talk of testing and vaccine passports may seem strange and convoluted, it is worth remembering that air travel has already undergone several dramatic changes in the past and survived. From smoking bans to post-9/11 security checks, flying looks a lot different now to how it did just forty years ago. And while it may feel like a lot of extra effort to get tested, this is in all likelihood the safest way to ensuring that the world can open up again soon. If nothing else – it surely beats sitting at home for another year.