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Tuesday, January 18, 2022
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Lessons Learned from COVID-19 Could Improve the U.S. Aviation Industry’s Handling of Future Pandemics

According to the stakeholders, passenger confidence in the air travel experience could have been restored more quickly if the federal government had provided greater coordination and guidance earlier in the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on the U.S. aviation industry. Passenger traffic in April 2020 was 96% lower than April 2019, and stayed 60% below 2019 levels in 2020. Effects cascaded across airports, repair shops, and the supply chain. For example, in response to reduced demand, airlines parked or retired many aircraft, which reduced demand for maintenance. Manufacturers of airport equipment have also suffered although some have been able to adapt or create equipment to directly help with pandemic response efforts, such as cleaning or temperature screening units.

To assist the industry, over $100 billion in federal assistance has been provided and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has enabled temporary relief from some regulatory requirements as well as providing guidance.

Stakeholders have also taken their own steps to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic and position themselves to maintain business viability until demand increased. These actions included managing costs, such as by implementing early retirement programs; raising funds in the private market to increase liquidity; and taking steps to mitigate COVID-19’s spread among employees and customers. In some cases, airports have paused or cancelled expansion and construction projects.

To reassure and win back travelers, some airlines and airports implemented contactless technology to reduce interaction between passengers and employees, such as adding automated bag drops and biometric ID checks. Other airports implemented consistent messaging and expectation setting about mask and social distancing requirements throughout their hubs to help passengers navigate differences in requirements at different destinations. While some of these measures, such as contactless technology, may be maintained in the long-term, others have been changing as public health needs have evolved with the rollout of vaccines and the beginning of pandemic recovery

On June 11, 2021, 2 million people crossed Transportation Security Administration airport security checkpoints, the highest level since March 7, 2020. However, TSA reported that it screened 1,607,238 air passengers on August 17, a 28 percent decline from the 2,238,462 passengers screened on August 1. Airlines also began to see a new decline in August.

Although airlines have experienced a rebound in demand for U.S. leisure travel in 2021, operational challenges and concerns about the COVID-19 Delta variant have slowed recovery as business and international air travel—the most profitable segments—lag behind. 

Stakeholders have spoken with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and identified areas of concern for policymakers to consider, such as strengthening aviation workforce pipelines, as they determine how or whether to continue to assist the industry in evolving market conditions. 

According to the stakeholders, passenger confidence in the air travel experience could have been restored more quickly if the federal government had provided greater coordination and guidance earlier in the pandemic regarding, among other things, COVID-19 testing, masking requirements, and baseline actions—such as sanitizing and updating signage—that airports and airlines could take. Some said that inconsistent passenger procedures between origin and destination airports were a major challenge.

GAO has reiterated its call for a national aviation-preparedness plan for communicable disease to provide greater coordination among federal and industry stakeholders and help better prepare the U.S. for future pandemics.

Such a plan would provide a mechanism for public health and aviation sectors to coordinate to limit the spread of communicable disease threats and minimize trade and travel impacts. Without this, GAO says the U.S. may not be as prepared to minimize and quickly respond to future communicable disease threats. Members of the House and Senate have introduced bills in support of this matter. In February 2021, H.R. 884, the National Aviation Preparedness Plan Act of 2021, 106 was introduced in the House of Representatives, and in May 2021, the Ensuring Health Safety in the Skies Act of 2021, 107 was reported favorably out of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. 

Globally, on October 22, more than 50 country representatives and the heads of 24 international organizations completed a comprehensive review of pandemic-driven priorities for global air transportation. The result of the International Civil Aviation organization (ICAO) conference on COVID-19 was a declaration formalizing new commitments on border risk management and vaccination approaches, building air transport back better for sustainability and future pandemic resilience, and other key priorities aimed at accelerating air tourism and trade recovery and reconnecting the world.

The declaration commits countries to a multilayer risk management strategy for international civil aviation, and one which is adaptable, proportionate, non-discriminatory, and guided by scientific evidence.

To strengthen global public confidence in air travel, the countries emphasized that while vaccination should not be a precondition for travel, it is highly desirable that it be used to facilitate increased international mobility. Countries agreed to work with ICAO and other stakeholders to ensure the interoperability and accessibility of secure applications to validate pandemic-related testing, vaccination, and recovery certification.

They also committed to promoting, to the greatest extent possible, a harmonized and inclusive approach, including alleviating or exempting testing and/or quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated or recovered passengers, taking into account the different circumstances of individual States and their national policies. This is consistent with current World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations.

Additional commitments focused strongly on ensuring the long-term sustainability of the air transportation sector, both in terms of its future resilience to new infectious disease outbreaks and the need to address the climate change challenge.

Further agreement was forged around the financial support needed to sustain air operators and regulators through the coming critical months for sectoral recovery, and to address key safety and passenger facilitation priorities as the global air network returns to full operational readiness.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the aviation industry, both in the U.S. and globally, is unprecedented. Experts firmly believe it will not be the last global pandemic and it is therefore imperative that as the industry builds back better it does not forget the lessons it has learned.

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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