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COVID-19 Tightens Its Grip on Travelers and the Aviation Industry

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has issued a special declaration on Conoronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) to help protect travelers and the aviation industry from misinformation as well as the virus itself.

The declaration stresses the importance of ensuring that response actions and measures are based on reliable science and timely facts. It also calls for cross-sector collaboration and the principles of multilateralism, strong international cooperation and coordination among all entities involved in the joint action against this global pandemic.

The declaration urges countries and stakeholders to:

  • apply existing regulations and guidance, particularly the Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) of Annex 9 (Facilitation) and other relevant international standards contained in the other Annexes to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, when addressing outbreaks of communicable diseases that pose a public health emergency of international concern; 
  • apply existing recommendations and guidance provided by the World Health Organization (WHO), in accordance with each country’s risk assessment and unique circumstances; 
  • foster and implement a culture of collaboration and information sharing among public health and civil aviation authorities through the establishment of National Facilitation Committees comprising all relevant entities, in line with ICAO provisions; 
  • proactively join, contribute to and assist the Collaborative Arrangement for the Prevention and Management of Public Health Events in Civil Aviation (CAPSCA); and
  • take the necessary actions to maintain the sustainability of air transport and the highest level of safety.

ICAO strongly supports calls by the WHO for countries to perform their own risk assessments and adapt their response measures accordingly, taking into account the International Health Regulations (IHR 2005).

To slow the spread of COVID-19 into the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is working with state and local public health partners to implement after-travel health precautions.

Depending on their travel history, travelers will be asked to stay home for a period of 14 days from the time they left an area with widespread or ongoing community spread. As of March 10 2020, these countries are China, Iran, Italy and South Korea

When returning from these countries, travelers are requested to:

  1. Take their temperature with a thermometer two times a day to monitor for fever. Also watch for cough or trouble breathing.
  2. Stay home and avoid contact with others. Stay away from work or school for a 14-day period. Employers should be contacted before travelers return to work.
  3. Avoid public transportation, taxis, or ride-shares.
  4. Avoid crowded places (such as shopping centers and movie theaters) and limit public activities.
  5. Keep your distance from others (about 6 feet or 2 meters).

In addition, The Department of State has urged citizens to reconsider travel and the Trump Administration has placed restrictions on foreign nationals traveling to the U.S.

Inevitably, such recommended and necessary actions are having an impact on the financial health of the global aviation industry. At the end of February, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicted a $29.3 billion loss in global revenue. By March 5, this estimate had already leapt to a ‘best case scenario’ of $63 billion if COVID-19 is contained within the current affected areas, with a potential to reach $113 billion+ if the virus spreads further. These predictions are currently based solely on passenger traffic as the impact on cargo  operations is yet to be assessed.

Europe has seen the largest downturn in passenger numbers with a 24% impact on passenger numbers, with travelers instead opting for alternative modes of transportation which potentially carry a greater risk of contamination, or forgoing travel altogether, particularly with regards to Italy.

This will be further impacted by the U.S. travel ban announced on March 11. Airlines for America, the trade group that represents U.S. airlines, said  the move will “hit U.S. airlines, their employees, travelers and the shipping public extremely hard,” but that they “respect the need to take this unprecedented action.”

Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO, said many airlines are cutting capacity and taking emergency measures to reduce costs. “Governments must take note. Airlines are doing their best to stay afloat as they perform the vital task of linking the world’s economies. As governments look to stimulus measures, the airline industry will need consideration for relief on taxes, charges and slot allocation. These are extraordinary times,” 

Meanwhile, Airports Council International (ACI) Wolrd published an advisory bulletin on March 10 on the predicted global economic impact on the airports sector of the unfolding public health emergency.

At the global level, ACI estimates that airport passenger traffic volume for the first quarter of 2020 will be down at least 12 percentage points compared to what ACI previously projected for the same quarter. Asia-Pacific, Europe and the Middle East are currently the most impacted and North America is expected to see similar declines in the second quarter of 2020 with recent service reductions announced last week and more expected in the coming weeks.

ACI is urging a proportionate slot allocation response to COVID-19 that will preserve global airport connectivity. It says a global suspension of slot rules would jeopardize the ability for countries to stay connected with the world which will in turn have knock on effects to economies.

Depending on local circumstances, ACI says a relaxation to a lower threshold as a first step may be considered in the case of markets where airlines are trimming capacity to reflect the lower demand impact experienced on routes not as directly impacted. In markets that are severely impacted, a suspension of the 80/20 rule may be considered for a limited period, in consultation with airport operators, airlines and slot coordinators.

“The airport industry recognizes that all stakeholders of the aviation ecosystem are heavily impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak, and as such favours a strengthened cooperation between airports, airlines, and regulatory authorities as the industry responds to the outbreak,” ACI World Director General Angela Gittens said.

“Airports rely heavily on airport charges to fund their operating and capital costs and operators find themselves under intense pressure during periods of traffic decline.  Airport revenues must be sufficiently protected to ensure safe and sustainable operations. Measures to limit the collection of airport charges would be ill-advised.”

APEX, the Airline Passenger Experience Association has called on governments worldwide to issue immediate tax relief in an even-handed manner for the airline industry in the wake of COVID-19. Representing nearly every major airline in the world, APEX believes that governments have a responsibility to reduce taxation upon airlines during the unprecedented disruption due to the pandemic.

Aviation remains one of the most heavily taxed industries worldwide with an estimated $136 billion in taxes being paid via airlines this year ranging from 5% to over 50% of total passenger ticket cost. As airlines are a leading global economic driver, APEX has put forward three key recommendations: Reduce all possible global tax burdens on airlines, suspend “hidden taxes” such as forced slot and gate utilization, and remove any new aviation taxes / penalties from consideration.

It is worth remembering that ICAO describes the likelihood of contracting the virus while flying as “extremely low”, given that aircraft cabins have highly effective air filter systems that remove airborne virus particles, and that aircraft are disinfected between flights, if needed, in accordance with ICAO standards.

This story was updated on March 12 to include the latest information.

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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