Hyderabad: The 21st century is the era of global citizens who constantly shuttle between various countries for business and leisure rather than being confined to borders. An ordinary day in the civil aviation industry which witness movement of 12 million passengers on more than 100,000 flights across the world is a testimony of the fact.
Air transportation alone is responsible for carrying approximately 61% of the world population in the year 2018. The industry has contributed USD 2.7 trillion to the global GDP in the year 2018 (IATA, 2018) and is estimated to have an economic impact of USD 5.7 trillion by the year 2036 (ICAO, 2019). This has made air transportation a lifeline to many.
Though promising, these estimates are often challenged by rare occurrences such as the recent Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), H1N1 Swine Flu and SARS which have and had halted most civil aviation operations worldwide. Though the names of these diseases are different they have all similarly impacted the aviation industry in different magnitudes.
Over time, the responses to such health emergencies have always been reactive rather than being proactive. Most responses are taken in the interest of national safety rather than a unified global response for international safety. Time and again these responses have been repetitive. This difference is the linchpin which decides the life and death of an airline. With various nations in a race to shut their borders and implement various travel sanctions, the civil aviation industry has ended up being in the line of fire time and again.
Airlines do not focus much on health trends but have a keen eye for political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental issues. Also, there has never been a disease that spreads so fast.
One of the biggest reasons for the aviation industry to be caught off-guard in such scenarios is due to the improper timeframe of escalations raised against the disease. For example, the delayed response of WHO in declaring a health emergency over COVID-19 played a crucial role in offsetting appropriate safety measures. This delay resulted in the rapid progression of an epidemic into a pandemic. This was predominantly the reason why the aviation industry acted as a means of importing and exporting infected people across the world. International aviation bodies such as ICAO base their airline directives on travel during such health emergencies over the inputs received by the WHO.
People in the aviation industry jest that to make a small fortune in aviation, a large fortune is needed. The impending threat of bankruptcy in the airline industry calls for the intervention of governments to collaborate with airlines in chalking out preventive steps that can save them.
A unified global approach to such health emergencies by states will give the aviation industry a level playing field to plan and optimize their operations and resources.
The world can no longer put up with extended travel bans and restrictions. A need for a decisive action plan to operate airlines in such a situation in the future is critical to people, the economy and the governments.
Mostly aviation crisis management has revolved around natural calamities, financial meltdowns, aircraft incidents and accidents that are frequent in their occurrence compared to a health emergency. Hence the industry’s preparedness in terms of their emergency response plan is less effective as there is a lack of unified approach by nations across the world.
In the time of Corona, airlines have been pushed into net negative bookings (where the refunds are greater than new bookings).
The potential emergency response plan for airline operations during influenza health emergency:
The chief medical officer of the airline must establish a team that can monitor and coordinate global airline operations in line with the local health authorities. This may involve fleet optimization to cater to the situation at hand.
Airlines along with local health authorities must conduct non-invasive health checks like the infrared temperature checking as a mandatory pre-boarding procedure. Passengers who exceed the acceptable temperature limits must be isolated for further medical scrutiny and enforce supervised quarantine as necessary at the port of exit.
The airlines must distribute a travel-friendly sized sanitization kit to every passenger boarding the aircraft from the epicenter. The sanitization kits must contain a respirator, alcohol-based cleaning wipes, and hand sanitizer. The inflight safety demonstration by the cabin crew must address the use of sanitization kit as needed.
The passengers must be supplied with Passenger Locator Forms (PLF’s) which encompasses a health declaration column on board their aircraft.
On arrival, the passengers are to be received by local health/border protection force authorities who conduct on arrival temperature checks as conducted previously before departure. The following authorities must collect the PLF forms from the passengers when doing so. Passengers whose temperatures may have exceeded the accepted limit should be isolated for further medical scrutiny and enforce supervised quarantine at the port of entry as necessary. The airline dispatcher must handover the flight manifests to the concerned health/border protection force handling this stage as it would help the authorities in contact tracing.
Depending on the number of cases (who might have developed symptoms onboard the aircraft) who exhibit increased body temperature, the airline authorities must conduct an aircraft sanitization process along with their routine cabin cleaning activities.
The above plan of action is for the airlines to operate when a disease outbreak happens. The plan accounts for some safety nets in the interest of passenger and public safety.
But, if the disease gets escalated into a pandemic, the airlines must prioritize their international routes by omitting the epicenter’s while they lobby with local governments to allow them to continue interstate travel with all the above-listed procedures in place.
This should not be considered as an immoral move that places the economy over health, as there is no recorded evidence of travel bans/pre-travel checks without forced quarantine/isolation on targeted individuals to be effective in curbing the disease spread. The restrictions can delay the onset of an outbreak in a country employing travel restriction but cannot deter the spread entirely.
The question - what does the future hold for the airline industry in the aftermath of COVID-19 is interesting to think about. There is neither a case study to refer nor any pattern to follow as the impacts of the disease have been unprecedented. The answer to this question would be like navigating through the dark skies without any cockpit instruments. But I still have tried collecting my thoughts on it, and they are as follows:
The domestic operations across the globe will have a head start compared to its counterpart.
The international operations may initially pick up an influx of repatriate flights across countries, but the general operations may be average for a certain period along this year until they normalize.
The airlines may act on recreating a robust health emergency operational plan. This will see more importance attached to the group’s chief medical officer and his active role in all future airline operations.
The airlines may consider including new specializations like bio-security analysts to assist the airlines in developing public health intelligence to plan and perform safe operations in the future. This comes in the wake of WHO losing its credibility over time.
The international aviation bodies may call for amendments to existing recommendations and plan of actions which may even ask the state health organizations to be in a close loop with airlines like unlike ever before.
I opine that airlines shall reach normalcy in operations after three-quarters of operations, which is contingent to decline in COVID-19 disease activity.
On-board sanitation methods and airline network and fleet optimization models to deal with such future health emergencies will take a full swing in aviation research.
The airlines may have to battle fearful mind-set of passengers with regards to sanitation on-board aircraft when the industry reopens its operations. This might call for innovative marketing strategy by airlines to instill confidence and promote travel.
An Author of ‘101 Flying Secrets’, Rakesh Dhannarapu is an ex cadet pilot, Asia Pacific Flight Training, India. Holding a B.Tech in Aerospace Engineering from SRM University, he completed M.Sc Aviation from RMIT University, Melbourne.