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It’s not over until it’s over

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February 1st 2021

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It is a sad truth global harmonization, more often than not, has been a bridge too far for the aviation industry. Read More » The battle to persuade the governments of the world to agree on a universal standard for COVID-19 testing for travellers has been unsuccessful. The detailed strategy of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Airports Council International (ACI) and several umbrella aerospace bodies to demonstrate to political and health policy makers that it is safe to fly has fallen on deaf ears.

Complicating the introduction of universal standardized virus testing is that the wheels of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) turn very slowly. Winning approval from all of ICAO’s 193 member States for a testing standard for the coronavirus will be nigh impossible.

So, with the pandemic still very much alive across the globe and more contagious strains of the virus complicating the delivery of vaccines worldwide, airline hopes for recovery have been dashed – at least for several months into 2021. For carriers in the Asia-Pacific, a region particularly vulnerable to the loss of long-haul and transit travel, the short-term future is more cash burn, more months of grounded fleets and more instant schedule revisions.

Unless there is another round of government aid, distributed either by direct funding or by backing airlines when they go to the market to raise cash, more industry bankruptcies are unavoidable. Singapore has shown the way by backing not just its airlines but the entire aerospace and airport sector. At press time, in its 2021 annual budget, the city’s government extended salary support for the industry for another six months.

At a recent industry briefing, a senior IATA director said carriers were suffering “death by a thousand cuts”. It is fair comment. The benefits of vaccine rollouts will take months to convert to new rules for travellers; that is removal of the patchwork of quarantine restrictions attached to international air travel.

In the meantime, it is generally agreed the industry faces a two-stage recovery. Already, first world nations are receiving a disproportionate allocation of vaccines. Air travel will open gradually in parts of the world well-served by vaccination supply while less affluent nations will remain in the hot zone.

And there is another problem that has particular relevance for long-haul dependent Asia-Pacific airlines. While the science dictates aircraft cabins are about the best place to stay safe from COVID-19 given the level of contagion and fatalities in Europe, the U.S. and South America, who will want to fly from this region to these high risk destinations unless the journey is absolutely essential? That question will be answered in coming months.

In general, the industry believes airlines will be cash positive in the second half of 2021, but given the uneven battle to conquer COVID-19 across the world, that optimism seems highly questionable.

Associate editor and chief correspondent
Orient Aviation Media Group

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