By Luis Felipe de Oliveira, Director General, Airports Council International
Last year will go down as the worst year ever in the history of aviation.
The aviation industry has weathered many storms over the last few decades, but it is safe to say that 2020 changed the world like no other for at least a generation, possibly since World War II. The current crisis has had a ripple effect on every aspect of human life as we know it and will continue to have devastating economic and social impacts for years to come.
I still remember being in a meeting this time last year where we were discussing the news about a fast-spreading virus in Wuhan, China. Little did we know that the coronavirus would turn into a global pandemic that would change our lives forever. From hitting record lows in global air traffic to shifting most operations and daily interactions into the virtual domain, the past 12 months have forced us to embrace disruption and quickly adapt to new realities.
Undoubtedly our industry will continue to face significant challenges this year with the first few months, in particular, likely to be very difficult. There is, however, light on the horizon even as case numbers continue to rise. We expect the recovery will start to the firm in 2021, especially as the vaccine rollouts take effect across the globe, but it could be years before passenger traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels.
The extent to which COVID-19 will leave a lasting legacy is far from clear but with every crisis, there is an opportunity, and we should see the pandemic as an accelerator that will enable our industry to make the necessary changes to move forward. I am confident that the coming Year of the Ox represents a golden opportunity for us to build on the lessons learned from 2020 and continue to work closely with our industry partners in the effort to build back better and continue to prepare for what the future may hold.
New Year, new challenges
Concern over a mutated, fast-spreading strain of the coronavirus identified recently in the United Kingdom caused turmoil in the country in late December. Many parts of England, including London and its surrounding counties, became subject to elevated travel restrictions, spelling the end of travel for the remainder of the year for many travellers who had plans to travel to and from England.
Fears about the UK’s new variant prompted a border shutdown with many European countries quickly blocking travel to and from the new hot spot. As a response to the new outbreak more than 40 countries across the globe have imposed even more severe travel and quarantine measures over the last couple of weeks.
Other mutated strains of the virus have also been detected in South Africa, Nigeria, Brazil, and Japan. The World Health Organization noted that, while these mutations do not pose a threat to the success of COVID-19 vaccines, they do give the virus some new energy.
One thing is certain – to go back to how things were at the beginning of the crisis, closing borders and applying to sever travel restrictions, will truly exacerbate what is already an existential crisis for aviation. Instead of using tests as a useful risk equalization measure, governments are opting to apply the same catastrophic measures that they deployed at the beginning of the pandemic. Witnessing this regression has truly been an unfortunate surprise.
The new obstacles do not change what we need to do to restart and restore air connectivity. As we embark on the long road to recovery collaboration and consistency between all players in the aviation industry will be vital to continue to increase passenger confidence and safely welcome them back.
Cautious optimism for recovery
Just as it was starting to appear nations had passed the peak of the virus outbreak, over the last couple of months countries across the globe have been gripped by the second and third wave of the pandemic, which could have the potential to cause more damage as they coincide with the winter months. Although the situation remains tough, 2021 started off as a promising and hopeful year with the news of further vaccine successes, giving a sense of cautious optimism.
The lessons learned during this pandemic such as social distancing, wearing masks, regular washing of hands, adherence to guidelines, along with personal hygiene, are among some of the key measures that have helped us avoid an even worst-case scenario. Over 300 airports around the world have achieved accreditation through the ACI Airport Health Accreditation programme, which demonstrates to passengers, staff, regulators, and governments that they are committed to providing high standards of health and hygiene that accord with globally recognized standards set forth by the ICAO Council Aviation Restart Task Force (CART) recommendations.
According to the newly released World Airport Traffic Forecast, markets that have significant domestic traffic are expected to recover to pre-COVID-19 levels in 2023, while those with a significant share of international traffic are unlikely to return to 2019 levels until 2024.
Despite the slow recovery, global passenger traffic worldwide is still expected to double over the next twenty years. Over the long term, it is projected to grow at an annualized rate of 3.7%, approaching 19.7 billion passengers by 2040. Asia-Pacific and Latin America-Caribbean regions are predicted to experience the fastest growth, while others will see a more modest expansion. China is projected to continue to dominate passenger rankings in 2040 with just over 3.6 billion passengers. US and India follow, with 2.9 and 1.3 billion passengers, respectively. Together, the three countries will handle almost 40% of global passenger traffic.
If this positive future is to be realized, however, we need policy support and assistance from governments now to lay the foundation and this means delivering a consistent approach to testing and vaccination. Risk management is a key element that should be used by the governments to mitigate the transmissions from the travellers.
Testing and vaccines
The first COVID-19 vaccines have been authorized for use and dissemination has begun in several countries, marking a major turning point in the pandemic, and bringing fresh optimism.
The vaccines were developed four times faster than any other in history, but they will also require a rollout four times greater, amounting to the largest simultaneous global public-health initiative ever undertaken.
According to Oxford University’s Our World in Data, a total of 30 million vaccination doses have been administered in 43 countries around the world. While the U.S., U.K., and Europe attempt to ramp up their own COVID-19 vaccination drives, one country is outpacing them all – Israel. Israel is leading the global vaccination race with more than 60% of the priority groups already immunized and almost 25% of the total population. As of 13 January, Israel administered 23 doses per 100 of its citizens, considerably more than the second-placed UAE’s 14.1 doses and third-placed Bahrain’s 5.75 doses, respectively.
The rapid deployment of vaccines is, of course, welcomed, but the aviation industry simply cannot afford to wait until they become available worldwide. Just as quarantine effectively halted the industry, a universal requirement for vaccines could do the same. During the transition period, tests and vaccines together will play a key role in the industry recovery.
Looking ahead to clearer skies
Perhaps, hindsight is indeed 2020, for 2020 is the year that we will be constantly looking back on for the lessons we learned and for the first-hand understanding of our collective capacity to change and adapt.
The last year has been a truly difficult one that many will wish to forget, yet it has served as a reminder to all of us that we live in a shared world – “it’s not about me, it’s about us”.
Although recovery will be long-haul, clearer skies are ahead of us. Now is our chance to reshape the way we do things – we need to seize this opportunity to make a difference in creating a world that works for all of us.