It’s hard to think of an industry which has been hit harder by the coronavirus than aviation.
Within Australia, flying by the public in June was down by 93.8 per cent compared with June last year.
For international flights, the fall was greater, down by 96.8 per cent compared to June 2019. In May, the fall was 98.3 per cent.
In plain English: the market has nearly vanished.
There are still flights but they are few and far between.
Canberra Airport, for example, has 114 departures and arrivals a week now compared with 780 before COVID-19 struck.
About 200,000 people have arrived in Australia from overseas since the end of March when the coronavirus really started impacting the industry, but they have invariably been people returning home. Their flights were one-way.
What’s it like flying?
It depends who you fly with.
Qantas, for example, gives people a pack with “sanitising wipes” and a mask but there is no compulsion on passengers to use them.
And the trolley service isn’t what it was: “For the time being we’ve reduced our food and beverage offering and removed in-flight entertainment,” the airline tells passengers.
But Qantas says passengers can bring their own food and non-alcoholic drinks, with the caveat that “as galley storage space is restricted, items you bring will need to be stored in your carry-on baggage”
“Drinks you choose to bring will also need to comply with any powders, liquids, aerosols and gels screening requirements where applicable.”
Internationally, it very much depends on who you fly with. Airlines from countries which are hyper-vigilant on the ground are hyper-vigilant in the air.
One traveller returning to Korea from Britain told this paper that the flight was surreal. Korean Air has immaculately made-up stewards, mostly female who wear heavy make-up in a classic Korean way – but now they have to wear inelegant goggles over it all.
When he arrived In Korea, the authorities assumed that he and his family were infected rather than that they weren’t.
Is there social distancing on airlines?
Apart from anything, the economics wouldn’t add up. Planes need to be full or near full for airlines to make a profit.
“If we take the middle seat, airfares will probably go up by around 50 per cent,” Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said.
“But even the middle seat only gives you 60 centimetres between passengers.”
Airlines say that their “industrial standard” air filtering systems make the risk of catching COVID-19 very low.
The country’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said: “Airlines, domestic airlines, certainly short-haul airlines, present quite a low risk of transmission because of their air handling.”
Check-in is online. Hand-sanitisers and social distancing in terminals is the norm.
One way of getting air travel going again would be to have widespread testing before boarding.
People who fail the test would go straight to isolation and not on to the plane. This would encourage people not to buy tickets unless they were absolutely sure they were free of COVID-19.
So far this hasn’t happened much but German airports are now testing passengers who arrive from countries where COVID-19 remains widespread.
If they don’t get a negative result, they go into 14 days of quarantine.
Hong Kong is also testing all travellers arriving from abroad. After the test, people have to wait at the airport for the result.
If they arrive in the evening, that may mean an overnight stay at a hotel before being cleared.
No test, no ticket
From Saturday, all passengers on Emirates and Etihad flights will have to show a negative COVID-19 test result before they’re allowed to fly.
Australians need formal permission from the government to leave the country and it’s only granted after a tough process of proving, for example, that the applicant has a job abroad.
But if they do want to fly with either of the airlines from the Gulf, they will need to visit an approved testing centre within 96 hours of their flight.
Other airlines on similar routes, like Turkish and Singapore, don’t insist on the COVID-free certificate so passengers may switch to them.
Surprisingly, aviation industry experts say prices will come down.
“As long as the oil price remains low and demand is low, airlines have no choice but to keep their prices low,” according to Dr Volodymyr Bilotkach of the Singapore Institute of Technology and the author of The Economics of Airlines.
What changes will stay?
Get used to the new normal.
The International Air Transport Association which represents airlines, reckons we have at least another three to four years of this, though domestic air travel will recover faster than international.
- Global passenger traffic will not return to pre-COVID-19 levels until 2024, a year later than previously projected.
- The recovery in short haul travel is still expected to happen faster than for long haul travel. Recovery to pre-COVID-19 levels, however, will also slide by a year from 2022 to 2023.
“Passenger traffic hit bottom in April, but the strength of the upturn has been very weak,” IATA’s Director General, Alexandre de Juniac, said.
Good news – and bad
Dr Bilotkach told this newspaper that flying would eventually revert to the way it was. He doesn’t think the changes will be permanent (as they have been since 9/11).
There will be step-by-step progress like more testing at airports and routes between COVID-19-clear countries.
But he is dismayed at the lack of cooperation between governments and between airlines.