ACI EUROPE: aviation is ‘unsustainable’; call to end quarantines
A war of words is developing rapidly between representatives of the air transport business and governments over whether passengers should be effectively banned from travelling by way of quarantine restrictions, which is just another form of lockdown.
Many demand a system of testing be put in place at airports very rapidly, either to reduce periods of quarantine or eliminate them altogether.
Evidence is growing that (local) community transmission is behind a steep rise in infection figures, and that air passengers present a very low threat as long as they are properly monitored.
Senior figures in the industry are on the warpath as this issue threatens not only the air transport and tourism industries but the entire global economic system, something which governments seem incapable of grasping.
- Statements from ERA and ACI EUROPE demand that governments change direction on quarantines in favour of regional travel corridors and airport testing.
- “Saving European tourism and aviation is not going to be done by selectively pouring billions into a few airlines” – ACI EUROPE.
- Evidence grows that countries that have expanded their airport testing of arriving passengers have had their national COVID-19 infection rates decline.
- Community transmission is clearly to blame, but identifying it is simply unpalatable for governments, which prefer a more easily enforceable blanket approach to restrictions.
- No end to the pandemic in sight, many people saying they would refuse a vaccination anyway.
- The aviation business will soon be on its knees if there is not a massive change of strategy by governments soon.
- The British government may suspend the Air Passenger Duty, but what is the point of that on its own?
European aviation organisations queue up to lambast governments’ policy
Very strongly worded statements are coming thick and fast from aviation organisations about the perpetuation of quarantine measures by governments, which are inhibiting the return of commercial scheduled services. Those measures are most common right now in Europe, where far from the virus pandemic being contained, infection rates are steadily climbing again.
One of the more mildly phrased press statements came from the European Regions Airline Association (ERA), which reiterated calls for a harmonised approach to European travel bans to boost traveller confidence.
The ERA suggested regional travel corridors and COVID-19 testing before the start of the journey to help prevent infections at airports and onboard aircraft. It also argued that testing should only be in place "for as long as is needed" during the crisis (which seems to be getting ahead of the game) and should be evaluated on a regular basis.
ERA DG Montserrat Barriga commented: "As European air travel moves towards recovery, we are deeply in need of processes that ensure safety while also supporting aviation and the travel industry as a whole. Creating regional corridors and implementing a consistent approach to testing across Europe... can provide passengers with not only the confidence to fly but the confidence to travel without fear of sudden and unpredictable blanket quarantines".
ACI EUROPE calls on governments to abandon quarantine in favour of staged virus testing, citing ECDC opinion
A far more sharply worded warning was issued by Olivier Jankovec, the Director General of ACI EUROPE – the industry body representing many of Europe’s airports – who pulled no punches whatsoever.
Mr Jankovec “applauded” the European Commission (EC) for its proposed comprehensive coordination framework for travel restrictions. ACI EUROPE strongly urged all EU/Schengen States not only to endorse this framework urgently, but also to adhere to it.
ACI EUROPE then called on European Governments to follow the position of the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC), which considers that travel restrictions are neither an effective nor efficient way of reducing COVID-19 transmissions in places where there is “community transmission” – which is the case across Europe.
At a minimum, and as specifically advised by the ECDC in its proposal, Mr Jankovec urged Governments to abandon quarantine requirements for travellers coming from high risk areas and replace them by testing for COVID-19 infection, where needed: “The Commission proposal goes in the right direction by asking States to recognise mutually the results of tests carried out by certified health bodies", he says. "But we urgently need a detailed testing protocol for travel agreed both at EU level and internationally.”
You won’t save aviation by 'pouring billions into a handful of airlines' - Olivier Jankovec
He continues, “Saving European tourism and aviation is not going to be done by selectively pouring billions into a few airlines. It will be done primarily by putting citizens and businesses in a position to travel again – so that all operators can look towards the path of recovery”.
Then, “The current situation is clearly unsustainable for European aviation and tourism. Governments are telling us we need to adapt to the reality of COVID-19. If that means getting our kids back to school, there is no reason why it should not mean being able to travel in a way that is safe, and limits transmission risks.
Many if not most of the current travel restrictions are not proportionate and not effective in combating the epidemic. At the same time, they are heavily damaging livelihoods as well as EU citizens’ fundamental right to travel freely within the EU for business, pleasure or for family reasons. They need to be reconsidered urgently.”
Aviation recovery is losing momentum fast
ACI EUROPE also released fresh data showing that recovery in passenger traffic across the European airport network lost momentum in the second half of Jul-2020 before stalling in August, overtly blaming this result on “the chaotic patchwork of travel restrictions reinstated by several States”.
Passenger volumes at EU/Schengen and UK airports decreased by -71% in Aug-2020, with that percentage going further down towards the end of the month in many markets. The rest of Europe did prove to be more resilient, with passenger volumes decreasing by -59%.
Overall, Europe’s airports lost an additional -182.3 million passengers during the peak summer month (-69%) compared to a business-as-usual scenario, bringing the total loss in passenger traffic since Jan-2020 to -1.15 billion.
Research shows that infection rates have declined in countries expanding airport testing
As Mr Jankovec’s press statement was released, one UK newspaper offered evidence that national COVID-19 infection rates have declined in countries that have expanded their airport testing of arriving passengers.
The data, covering the period from mid Aug-2020 to the weekend of 04/05-Sep-2020, shows that Greece, Denmark, Iceland, Germany, Cyprus and Singapore all reduced their rates after intensifying border testing to allow arrivals to avoid 14-day quarantine.
The disclosure challenges governments’ contention (and especially that of the UK government) that testing on arrival is ineffective and only catches 7% of cases.
Many firms in the travel and aviation industry are advocating a two-test model: one on or before arrival, and then a second followed up after five days of quarantine, reducing the time travellers have to self-isolate by nine days.
Countries that are currently testing, as at Sep-2020
Supporters of testing have cited Jersey (a British Crown Dependency off the French west coast), which has tested all 20,000 inbound travellers on arrival – equivalent to 20% of its population – since opening its borders in Jul-2020, and has detected 17 COVID-19 cases.
All were quarantined. In the same period, there were only four cases of “in community” infections unrelated to the border.
They claim that if the PHE (Public Health England) modelling had been correct in its assumptions, Jersey should have experienced a further 185 imported cases of COVID-19, and many dozens more cases of onward transmission within the community.
"It experienced none”, says the newspaper, quoting scientists’ representations in a paper submitted to the Government.
Iceland introduced a two-test regime for arrivals from 19-Aug-2020, with the second after five days of quarantine, and has since seen its COVID-19 case rate fall from 16.5 to 11.5 per 100,000 of people. If the PHE modelling was correct, Iceland would have experienced more than 1,000 additional cases of imported COVID-19, and many hundreds of cases of onward transmission.
They have not. Total ‘in-community’ transmission for the period (not related to the border) was just 166 cases.
In Greece, which carries out more than 9,000 tests a day at its ports of entry, the case rate per 100,000 has fallen from 14.3 to 13.7, and in Denmark, which uses five-minute tests on arrivals, it has dropped from 15.4 to 12.9. Germany, which moved to the Icelandic two-test model, has gone from 10.1 to 9.0, Cyprus is down from 9.4 to 7.5, and Singapore down from 10.4 to 5.8.
IATA joins the campaign
IATA was expected to join organisations publicly backing what is being called the Test4Travel campaign. Alexandre de Juniac, IATA Director General, referred to “a COVID testing regime that manages the risk to keep people safe from the virus… and which will avoid apocalyptic unemployment that is sure to devastate society and the economy".
The campaign gains extra emphasis from warnings that cases across Europe are “almost back” to the levels seen in Mar-2020, when infections peaked and draconian lockdowns were introduced.
Across the continent countries have been rapidly easing lockdowns, encouraging tourism and reopening in an effort to kick-start their economies.
Spain and Ukraine registered 7,500 and 2,700 new cases respectively in recent days (Spain's has since exceeded 10,000/day), while the UK went over 3,000 cases – a doubling of the previous day’s rate.
Governments in denial over community transmission
When Mr Jankovec refers to ‘community’ transmission it is clear what is happening. While there is scant evidence that tourists are to blame for rising case numbers, as was originally thought to be the case in Greece for example, community transmission assuredly is, whether it is by way of close mixing within certain socio-demographic groups, for example in industrial towns in the north and Midlands of England, or within groups of young people, everywhere.
Young people seem to be the major ‘spreaders’ at the moment as they ‘party’ in a way they could not during lockdown, conscious of the fact that if they catch the disease it will more than likely be only a mild version.
Perhaps the ‘botellónes’ that any visitor to Spain will have observed – the coming together in very close proximity of large groups of teenagers in bars and clubs, together with associated hugging and kissing, inside or outside – are the best example. Elsewhere it is manifested in unscrupulous club owners flagrantly violating social distancing regulations and the organisation of illegal ‘raves’.
The British Health Secretary appealed to them to “show more responsibility”, a message that is at least a month late as schoolchildren (who rarely show symptoms but who easily infect their parents) are already back at school (with cases already reported at dozens of schools), and with tertiary education students returning this week, en masse.
But of course, no government would seek to alienate the vote of the younger generation, so instead of doing what they should do – placing everyone from 16 to 30 under curfew for a month – instead they can only offer mealy-mouthed requests.
The industry bodies argue there is very little transmission directly, provably, attributable to travellers as chronicled above, but much is attributable to the local community.
No end in sight
It isn’t as if there is an end in sight. The approval of vaccines, which are being sought on a country-by-country basis rather than being centrally co-ordinated, will not happen overnight.
The World Health Organisation recently said it only expects the pandemic to be ended “within two years”. Then governments have to persuade individuals to take the vaccine. In some countries 25% of people polled have said they will refuse it (in one case 75%!) as the number of conspiracy theories grows by the day.
Already there have been anti-lockdown demonstrations in some countries. They actually began in the U.S. in May-2020, in the Midwest ‘rustbelt’, but were overtaken by (and absorbed into?) the 'Black Lives Matter' protests.
And the ex-Head of the World Bank also stated recently that if global trade does not get back on track soon, the world could easily end up looking like it did in 1900.
The aviation industry, along with the tourist business it supports, will be gone long before then. Many answers are needed, now. For the air transport business it is “when will we even be allowed to start trading properly again?”
UK may suspend Air Passenger Duty – what is the point?
As this report is written it is rumoured in the British media that the unloved Air Passenger Duty (APD), the highest in the world, is to be suspended until summer-2021. However, no announcement was made on the suspension of APD by the UK Transport Secretary in a statement on 07-Sep-2020. He said the government was "working actively on the practicalities" of using coronavirus testing to cut the 14-day quarantine period for people arriving in the UK from high-risk countries.
People are not flying because of the expense of it. It is in most cases because they are reluctant to, but also because of the imposition of the regulations referred to here. They cannot get into countries because of quarantine regulations imposed by the one(s) they want to visit, and even if they could, they are subject to draconian quarantine regulations when they return. And the rules keep changing, week after week.
Without a concurrent introduction of testing at the expense of quarantine, any relaxation of the APD is no more than a gesture.