Airline capacity continues to be restored worldwide
While in mid-April, two thirds of the global passenger jet fleet was grounded, recent data from aviation data and analytics company, Cirium, reports that the proportion of the global passenger fleet in storage has stabilized at 33% from August 14th – August 25th, 2020. Less than 30% of the grounded aircraft was narrowbody aircraft with more than 40% representing widebody aircraft. These numbers reflect relatively higher demand for domestic and interregional travel and continued depressed demand for international travel. According to IATA, international air travel remains at 2% – 4% of normal capacity.
Joint efforts to rebuild passenger confidence amid the crisis
Various international industry bodies are exploring possible solutions to help restore airline traffic to more sustainable levels. A study published by IATA’s Medical Advisory Group on August 6, 2020 found that restoring airline traffic to normal levels will require governments to lift regional and international travel restrictions, and for passengers to regain confidence in air travel.
Implementing safety protocols is key
Absent a clear understanding of the COVID-19 virus’ spread in the cabin and the current lack of a vaccine that could calm public health concerns, the study advocates for a multi-layer approach to protect from passengers contracting COVID-19.
According to IATA, among the different measures currently being deployed by certain airlines and airports are:
- Temperature Screening: This method utilizes handheld temperature scanners, remote thermal scanners and newly developed cameras able to remotely measure passengers’ temperature, pulse and respiration rates. These measures are utilized at arrival and departure areas, but do not to detect asymptomatic infections, or identify those passengers who have taken fever-reducing medication (e.g., aspirin, Advil, etc.).
- Symptom Screening: Arriving passengers are asked to complete a questionnaire about possible COVID-19 symptoms they are currently experiencing (e.g., fever, cough, shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell, etc.).
- Masks and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Some airlines have issued PPE equipment to crew members, as well as gate and ground staff. Many airlines also are mandating masks for passengers.
- Social Distancing: The current guidance for the ideal distance between individuals ranges from 3 feet – 6 feet (1-2 meters). Following the International Civil Organization’s (ICAO) and the Airports Council International’s (ACI) guidelines, airlines and airports should modify check in, immigration, security, departure lounge and boarding areas and processes to allow for proper distancing between passengers and passengers and staff.
- Cleaning and Disinfection: As per the World Health Organization (WHO), proper hand hygiene and the cleaning of frequently touched surfaces at the airport and onboard an aircraft remain important layers of defense.
- COVID-19 Testing: Rapid point-of-care testing is practiced at many airports and provides another layer of protection.
Other measures that have been considered, but for various reasons are not yet being widely implemented include:
- Antibody Testing: These tests have not yet been validated for the aviation industry by major health organizations such as WHO, and are not considered reliable enough to be deployed for epidemiological studies.
- Immunity Passports: The number of people who could be issued an immunity passport is very small, and thus insignificant. Further, there is no clear understanding how long the acquired immunity lasts.
- Quarantine: This is a highly effective method to stop imported cases from spreading. It is, however, not practical for most travelers, who have to quarantine upon arrival at their destination and upon their return to their home country.
- Contact Tracing: This method is mostly applied via mobile applications. Contact tracing can help to prevent passengers who were close to an infected person from starting their journey, or help to quickly isolate those who have potentially contracted the virus during their journey.
New strategies to navigate the Coronavirus
In another indication that airlines are beginning to adapt to the new reality, new examples of airline partnerships are appearing. Most recently, JetBlue and American announced an alliance through which each would be able to sell seats on each other’s plane. This alliance is intended to give both airlines a competitive edge against competing airlines such as Delta and United, especially in major metro markets such as New York and Boston.
Elimination of change fees
Another example of airlines implementing new strategies to remain competitive is the dropping of change fees by yet another airline. Specifically, United Airlines is following a policy long being used by Southwest in eliminating change fees on tickets for U.S. travel. In addition to Southwest, United also is waiving change fees for this year.