There are so many gaffes in aviation caused by unpreparedness and
missteps that it is almost impossible to catalog. The COVID-19 virus should
have been treated at the outset as a security issue.
Since 9/11, the industry
has made flying safe using a combination of physical security and cyber security.
Unfortunately the industry has not treated the pandemic the same way. As it unfolded,
seven critical mistakes were made:
Mistake #1 - Assuming
the pandemic is a temporary aberration, so measures put into place must be
temporary. Willie Walsh as new IATA director general has made that
point forcefully. He is plain wrong. The COVID-19 virus will still be circulating
for many years. We must, therefore, take a permanent layered approach in
mitigation. We must recognize that COVID-19 is not unique.
#2 Lack of transparency of the true extent of COVID infections onboard airliners. Canada is a
rarity in that it publishes weekly stats as does the province of British
Columbia. China sanctions airlines for bringing in COVID-positive passengers.
It names, shames and acts. Why don’t all countries employ this simple and
lifesaving effort? Management of the information has been terrible. Contact
tracing has become largely ineffective. We need transparency.
to understand that the adoption of vaccines will not be universal. Looking
at travelers around the globe, studies show there is still significant hesitance
or even resistance among flyers to getting vaccinated. The research from Deloitte’s
State of the Consumer Tracker confirms that for the near term the
combination of the unvaccinated and those who choose not to receive it are the
majority. This is mirrored in the USA population as a whole, according to NPR/Marist
conclusion to be drawn - that none of us can be fully safe from COVID-19 on
planes, perhaps ever – is not a desirable public message for airlines.
#4 Failure to control borders. In Canada in the
first quarter of 2021 there were 1,128 reported instances of flights arriving from
international destinations with at least one COVID-positive passenger onboard and
surprisingly fewer - 760 - instances on domestic flights.
about departing countries, surely, they could be doing a better job? India has
been consistently a leading exporter of the disease. Based on hard data of
Canada flights, 11% of all COVID reported cases were nonstops from Delhi. That
under-reports Indian passengers connecting via the Gulf or Europe. In addition,
results and vaccine certificate fraud has already arrived making the
Mistake #5 Spreading the message that “flying
is safe.” The U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disagrees.
Let’s be clear - air travel spread the virus across borders. This
misinformation has created a mistrust of flying and contributed to the disease’s
impact. Open-source project Nextstrain
has plotted the pathogen’s swift spread.
air travel, 9/11 was a watershed moment. We changed overnight recognizing that air
travel had to be secured. We have known since the outset that COVID-19 is
deadly. Thus, preventing the spread and ensuring the safety of the passengers
should have been priorities numbers one and two. Yet they weren’t and still
aren’t. A warning – herd immunity
may never be achieved.
#6 Failure to make aircraft and airports COVID-free zones. They won’t be for some
time. There is no universal testing on departure or arrival. Hang your heads in
shame airlines and regulators. The challenge will be the problem of whether
travelers are a danger. What happens when we have “vaccine deniers,” “hesitants”
and “not-yet-ers” who believe they have the exact same right to board an
aircraft as much as vaccine adopters?
Mistake #7 Assuming digital health apps are the
silver bullet that will restore trust in the air transportation system. Nearly
1.1 billion vaccine doses have been administered to date worldwide. The
majority of those have not been tracked. Regulation and data privacy will
prevent vaccine data from being easily shared. It will take a long time to make
that a reality. And all of the various apps suffer from three basic problems:
- There will be no universal standards for either vaccines or testing.
- There is no broad trust and proof
that can be delivered in the short term.
- Human are responsible for the
entering of the data and the interpretation.
we simply increase air transport security to re-open borders – safely and
responsibly? I believe so.
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We need concepts designed for permanence while acknowledging
that threat levels will fluctuate. For a safe flying environment to exist, we
must stop COVID-positive transports; for now that is unrealistic, so testing on
arrival must be the start.
need to uncouple the solution of a “safe arrival app” from building
foundational travel corridors and bubbles. We must acknowledge COVID-19 immunity
(in any one country sufficient to be considered safe) cannot exist, perhaps for
years to come.
more than a year the industry and regulators have floundered coming up with a plethora
of “new” solutions. Existing mechanisms, processes and funding woefully ignored
for post-COVID recovery. No current system makes flying fully safe, other than
shutting borders or quarantining all passengers for multiple weeks. Even then
flying itself is not safe.
I recommend a five-point layered approach to making air travel safe – for
passengers, crew and for the destination – that is permanent and flexible
without surrendering sovereignty.
- A centralized approach to the border security where health, cyber-threat and
physical security are treated equally.
- A low-cost, real-time testing system needs to be in place at the border that
can be administered by the in-country health authorities.
- Transparent testing and tracing information needs to be widely distributed.
- Bi-lateral and multi-country agreements for each-way security must be
negotiated step by step. Universal solutions are a long way off.
- Common standards are needed for flight PNRs storing compliance and verification
9/11, airlines and authorities quickly came up with modifications to protocols
and processes for ensuring that bad actors, either deliberately or accidently,
didn't transport weapons. We have been able to prevent danger to passengers/crew
and from the aircraft being weaponized.
We need that same centralized approach
now. Health security must be treated similarly as physical security, including background
checks, pre-certification and not forgetting enforcement processes. Today, if
an airline brings an unauthorized person into a country, then it is fined (typically
$10,000 or equivalent) for each passenger and are also responsible for
re-patriating and housing costs. Let’s apply the same to COVID-positive
passengers. No changes needed.
testing on arrival needs to occur at the border until the inbound authority
determines (by departure point) the threat is low enough. Developing travel
corridors and bubbles is going to be hard. How many cross-border immigration
agreements exist? Surprisingly few. The U.S. had only six countries with
pre-clearance. Each country must be responsible for its own self-determination
of border security.
and standards need to come together. There must be a common standard for flight
PNR verification at check-in and boarding interfaced from a touchless or
managed common API to the master host. Systems are in place today for
stakeholders in air travel e.g., APIS.
government-mandated fee on a ticket should be levied. If testing was uniformly
administered by each destination’s authorities, then the fee would be
palatable. Technology is now reducing the cost of speedy testing to a
Countries can set their own standards and deploy their own
forms of testing. Pass, you are admitted; fail and you are not. If the airline
transports you, they are responsible for the fine. If you test positive with an
imported variant of the disease after you enter then an individual can be
subject to sanctions. This follows long established security protocols.
five-point plan presented here is simple, straightforward and can be
implemented without solving world peace. Airlines and regulators must become
realistic about the challenges and try not to let perfect get in the way of good.
summary, ending constant opening and shutting of borders, by implementing the five-point
plan creates a transparent and executable program that can work for any country,
recognizing border controls.
Countries can also develop partnerships. It is
universally trustable. As each country controls its own levels of infection,
restraints to inbound individual travel can fall and international travel will
Failure to implement a solution can only continue to damage the sector
and maintain the drain on each country’s treasury bailing out airlines.
About the author...
O’Neil-Dunne is a principal at 777 Partners
and the views expressed here are