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Managing the COVID-19 Crisis in The Aviation Industry

It is not uncommon in 2020 to hear people characterize the current pandemic as an event of extraordinary scale, exceeding any expectations and economic damage predictions. Many businesses succumb to the influence of circumstances beyond their control and seize all operations until the situation resolves itself. The aviation industry is one of the areas that experienced the full effects of the pandemic, as closed borders in the majority of countries have stopped air travel almost entirely. Although some may call the current crisis unprecedented, the aviation industry is always known to be able to find safe and effective solutions to the direst problems. This paper will evaluate the ongoing crisis and compare the circumstances to the previous projections regarding similar scenarios to determine whether unprecedented crisis management really does not exist. It will also assess the state of the aviation industry and propose specific measures that need to be taken to minimize financial losses while ensuring the highest safety of passengers, crew members, and other people involved.

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Although the COVID-19 pandemic is often called unprecedented by common people and even some experts, similar crises have happened in the relatively recent past. The SARS outbreak of 2003 was the most severe of them, and it resulted in a 35% reduction in Asia-Pacific traffic (What can we learn from past pandemic episodes?, 2020). In the end, airlines lost about $6 billion in revenues due to the decrease in all forms of travel (What can we learn from past pandemic episodes?, 2020). Logically, this pushed the aviation industry to develop contingency plans in case a similar scenario emerges in the future, threatening the economic viability of many companies.

The subsequent epidemics of the avian flu has been substantially less damaging to the industry. Neither the 2005 nor the 2013 outbreak had a significant impact on the volume of air traffic. The 2015 MERS Flu had a more pronounced effect, although it still did not match the impact of the initial wave of SARS. The decline in traffic was only limited to 12% at the peak of the crisis, and travel returned to normal rates within six months (What can we learn from past pandemic episodes?, 2020). There could be different reasons for the substantially less devastating consequences of these crises. Some percentage of the improvement could be attributed to the advances in medicine and public health that happened in the 12 years between the SARS pandemic and the MERS flu outbreak. One could also claim that the different diseases had varying degrees of severity and transmission rates, which determined its influence on the air travel industry. Better preparedness for such shocking events might also have played a role in making airlines more resilient to such crises and allowing them to recover quicker.

Although all of the factors mentioned above could be relevant to some extent, this paper focuses on the emergency preparedness and emergency response planning aspect of crises. To accurately determine if the warning signs for future pandemics exited, it is effective to consider some older articles covering similar events. For instance, the MERS pandemic, which is the more deadly but less easily spread variant of SARS, has had a relatively slow start, similar to that of COVID-19 (Prepare for Pandemic, 2014). Airports became concerned when there were less than a thousand people infected with MERS, warning that the spreading speed will increase drastically with time. Suggestions such as screening all passengers moving to and from infected regions of the world and minimizing personal contacts were also not uncommon during the SARS era (Prepare for Pandemic, 2014). Taking into account the ease with which an infectious disease can be transmitted through casual gestures and daily operations, it is only logical to take measures to change the habits that allow for that.

Although there were recommendations to incorporate more proactive practices aimed at preventing the spread of viruses, the number of persistent changes was minimal, as people reverted to regular lifestyles when the immediate danger passes. The aviation industry has the potential to mitigate this problem, as airlines have the capability to enforce any rules necessary to ensure the safety of the people on board. In 2015, the United States Government Accountability Office had conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the different components of the Aviation System and determined that a plan for handling communicable diseases needs to be created (Air Travel and Communicable Diseases, 2015). This plan is meant to ensure quick and efficient communication for responding to potential public health threats. While this is crucial for the immediate safety of everyone involved, as well as for reducing the spread of disease in the long term, it does not help airlines stay viable during pandemics.

To sum up, there were sufficient warning signs about pandemics, and the industry prepared itself in some aspects. The International Civil Aviation Organization refers to pandemics as an appropriate scenario to be addressed in the emergency response plans of aviation service providers (Safety Management Manual (Doc 9859). 4th edn, 2018). Safety management systems should be able to identify public health emergencies and outline some actions that would mitigate the threat. Knowing this, one might expect the aviation industry to be well prepared for the COVID-19 crisis.

While the theory suggests that a pandemic is not an extraordinary crisis for the aviation industry, the reality appears to be different. The ICAO response to the crisis refers to COVID-19 as an unprecedented challenge to the air transport sector (COVID-19 Response and Recovery Platform, no date). The international regulators of the field have addressed the crisis by allowing member states to implement some alleviations that would increase safety (COVID-19 Contingency Related Differences (CCRD), no date). While these alleviations are intended to ensure safety while maintaining the functional state of the aviation industry, they could cause some unexpected risks when used in combination with each other.

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The industry has taken the planned measures to address the COVID-19 crisis; however, the impact on air traffic was still exceptionally severe. Comparing the statistics for 2019 and 2020, one can see worldwide declines of up to 70% in the months of April and May (Operational Impact on Air Transport, 2020). Considering the fact that January and February, the months before the coronavirus became so widespread, show an increase in flights compared to the previous year, the effects of the pandemic seem even more drastic (Operational Impact on Air Transport, 2020). The overall statistics show a 37% drop in traffic in 2020, and June seems the indicate the beginning of a recovery period, with 54% fewer flights than in 2019 (Operational Impact on Air Transport, 2020). The peak of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a substantially more powerful shock to the aviation industry than any of the previous pandemics, doubling the numbers of SARS.

There may be several ways to understand the implications of this information. On the one hand, the fact that the coronavirus has managed to paralyze over two-thirds of the world’s air travel is grim. One might think that this means that the industry was not prepared to slow the spread of the virus enough so that it would not affect as many countries. On the other hand, airlines were able to maintain some operations, despite the fact that many countries have closed their borders and some even restricted travel between cities. Although airlines and other service providers have their own regulations to increase the safety of their passengers, the spread of the virus does not depend on them entirely. An air travel company could disinfect every surface of their planes, demand that their customers wear masks and plastic gloves during the whole flight, but that will only affect the spread of the virus within the cabin. The infected people will still transmit COVID-19 to someone at their destination, as they will throw away their masks as soon as they leave the plane.

As airlines cannot stop the virus from spreading to new countries, this role is usually taken by government regulators. The companies involved in air travel do everything possible to ensure the safety of the people they work with, but they are also motivated by profit. The coronavirus has caused over $160 billion in lost revenue for air carriers worldwide and 1.2 billion fewer passengers than expected (Revenue / Pax / Seat Losses, 2020). The latter number is substantially lower than the 4.6 billion, predicted by ACI in its global forecast for 2020 (Predicted global impact of COVID-19 on airport industry escalates, 2020). The current trends do not seem to match the predictions exactly, which can happen for several reasons.

One the one hand, it is possible that the ACI’s projections were not entirely accurate, and the industry will recover more quickly than expected. On the other hand, there could be a resurgence in COVID-19 cases in the following months, as many schools and businesses will be reopening in the fall. At the moment, some countries are lifting or making exceptions to their travel restrictions because the situation in some parts of the world has become safer. However, there is still not confirmed data on the percentage of the population that has gain immunity to the coronavirus. Although there are some experimental treatments that claim to improve the survivability of patients, they are not clinically approved, and only offer marginal results. An effective cure for the disease can be years away, as it will need to undergo extensive testing before being distributed to the general public. Finally, it is not clear if people are capable of developing lasting immunity to COVID-19, or if they can become infected again after recovering.

The factors mentioned above suggest that the industry is facing a substantially longer crisis, both in relation to the past pandemics and to the earlier predictions concerning the current one. A recent press release from the International Air Transport Association suggests that the recovery will be significantly slower than expected due to several reasons (Recovery Delayed as International Travel Remains Locked Down, 2020). The primary reason is that the US, as well as many developing countries, is not able to contain the spread of the virus, with new outbreaks appearing in different regions of the world (Recovery Delayed as International Travel Remains Locked Down, 2020). Another issue is the fact that companies that are struggling to sustain their business model in this challenging time are unlikely to send representatives abroad for meetings, instead of conducting them online (Recovery Delayed as International Travel Remains Locked Down, 2020). Lastly, even if some restrictions get lifted, not all potential customers will feel safe entering a plane with several hundred strangers who might have the coronavirus. Economic reasons will also affect consumers, as people might not have the funds to purchase plane tickets.

Considering these factors and the available data, one can assume that the industry will not be able to recover quickly from this crisis. The IATA states that short flights will become more common sooner than longer ones, and pre-COVID-19 travel rates can be expected in 2023 (Recovery Delayed as International Travel Remains Locked Down, 2020). Total recovery of passenger traffic is projected to happen in 2024, which means that airlines will be losing revenue for 3 years. Although the air travel industry cannot control most of the factors that affect this, they can influence the consumers’ perception of the safety of traveling by plane.

To increase viability in the short and medium term, it is recommended for airlines to take a number of quick and cost-effective steps, aimed at improving both the actual and the perceived safety of their services. The easiest response measure to implement immediately would be a set of rules for the passengers to follow. These regulations would include wearing masks during the flight, maintaining a safe distance when boarding the plane, minimizing physical contact with objects and other people. In addition, the crew should include disinfecting the plane in their pre-flight checklist, to prevent it from being contaminated with the virus. Complimentary masks, hand sanitizers, and plastic gloves should be made easily available to all passengers. If the plane is not filled to capacity, some passengers should be asked to move further away from each other, as an additional safety measure. In the medium term, airports could automate some of their processes to exclude human interaction where possible. For instance, check-in desks and security could be monitored by trained personnel, but operate on a self-service basis. Some parts of cabin service could also be performed by using delivery robots instead of food carts.

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In addition to ensuring viability in the short and the medium term, the air travel industry needs to develop emergency response plans to be better prepared for future pandemics. It seems probable that people will have to wear masks on planes for several years until the coronavirus crisis passes. It would be an effective precautionary measure to make this a permanent rule, which will serve as a proactive measure for slowing the spread of any disease. Airports could also incorporate an automatic body temperature reading into the check-in procedure, which will be helpful in a similar scenario. Finally, airlines could improve their communication with the healthcare sphere, which will enable them to react to new crises in advance.

In conclusion, the phrase “unprecedented crisis management does not exist” is valid for the current pandemic. Although the COVID-19 crisis is far more extensive than any prior incident of a similar nature, the aviation industry has already developed emergency responses for such situations. Although airlines cannot eliminate the root cause of the problem, they are advised to disinfect planes and provide personal protective equipment for passengers as a precaution. In addition, it is recommended to automate some processes at airports and on flights, in order to minimize human contact. Finally, companies should implement long term solutions that will help to cope with such crises in the future.

Reference

Air Travel and Communicable Diseases (2015). Web.

COVID-19 Contingency Related Differences (CCRD) (no date) ICAO. Web.

COVID-19 Response and Recovery Platform (no date) ICAO. Web.

Operational Impact on Air Transport (2020) ICAO. Web.

Predicted global impact of COVID-19 on airport industry escalates (2020) ACI World. Web.

Prepare for Pandemic (2014) Aviation Pros. Web.

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Recovery Delayed as International Travel Remains Locked Down (2020) IATA. Web.

Revenue / Pax / Seat Losses (2020) ICAO. Web.

Safety Management Manual (Doc 9859). 4th edn (2018) ICAO. Web.

What can we learn from past pandemic episodes? (2020) IATA Economics. Web.

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