While politicians fiddle, airlines are burning through cash. US$51 billion in Q2. Another $77B expected in the second half of the year. A further $5-6 billion per month through the end of 2021, according to IATA’s current forecast.
Some governments have continued to prop up their nation’s airlines, such as Japan and Australia, but others have become preoccupied with elections and second-surge pandemic restrictions, ignoring pleas from aviation leaders while tens of thousands of talented, experienced airline employees are furloughed or released.
Under the radar, thousands more jobs are being shed throughout the airline supplier community – aircraft manufacturers and component builders, MROs to an extent, catering companies, ground transport, airport retailers, and aviation training organisations.
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For those businesses, large and small, which are continuing to attempt to service the industry, the failure of government funding and the hoarding of cash by the airlines (have you tried to get a refund on a cancelled flight this year?) generally means suppliers down the line are not getting paid. And support for small businesses such as the US CARES Act have lapsed into the “no longer care” category.
Airlines and airports, thanks to their controlled-access environment, have done a credible job of mitigating the risk of spreading the coronavirus. Mask mandates are being rigorously enforced, with resistors removed from the aircraft. The same practice should be followed in airports where security and boarding queues funnel people into close proximity.
IATA Medical Advisor Dr. David Powell noted there have been only 44 documented cases (confirmed, probable or potential) of Covid-19 being transmitted among 1.2 billion passengers, or one case for every 27 million pax. “The same category as being struck by lightning,” compared Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s DG and CEO. Computational fluid dynamics simulations by Airbus, Boeing and Embraer demonstrate that the downward flow of air, together with HEPA filters, high seat backs, masks, and discouraging ill persons (or those recently in contact with ill persons) – even with close proximity seating – is far less risky than most indoor environments, especially a bar or movie theatre.
However, in addition to traveller skepticism, the highest barrier to the return to normal air travel is the confusing myriad of quarantine restrictions when arriving in another country. Some countries have even selectively ostracized those coming from individual regions or cities. The prospect of being locked down for two weeks on arrival at your destination, then another 10 to 14 days on returning home, tends to immediately kill thoughts of a quick business trip or holiday or visit to the family.
Instead of blanket quarantines, IATA and Airports Council International have encouraged universal testing of passengers. A negative test within a limited timeframe, and you should be good to fly and skip the lockdown on both ends of the trip. Seems logical, assuming the veracity of the testing scheme.
There may soon be another wild-card tossed into the passenger anxiety mix: recertification of the Boeing MAX. Will people feel comfortable getting onboard the modified aircraft after the erosion of confidence in governments and science over the handling of the pandemic, as well as the alleged failure of safety protocols by the manufacturer and regulator?
There’s an irony in all this that the anticipated end, or at least minimisation, of the global virus crisis is in part dependent on aviation’s capability (and temperature-controlled storage) to transport billions of vials of vaccine around the world. So the faster the planes get back in the air, the faster the virus can be brought under control.
In the training arena, the need to socially distance is triggering a radical re-think of the education process. By and large, the industry has pivoted quickly to online options to continue the curricula. Now that we’re resigned to this new normal, there needs to be some serious analysis of how remote learning, VR/AR and other emerging technologies can best be applied to enable the performance-based training which has long been advocated, but not truly implemented on a widespread scale.
The return of a robust airline industry depends on safety of the aircraft in the air, and now also the safety of the air in the aircraft.