Shutting down the Continent’s airlines took a matter of days — getting them flying again will take a lot longer and will be much more difficult to execute.
With new infections and COVID-19 deaths starting to curve downward in some countries, there is growing talk of easing restrictions. But opening shops and allowing more people to head back to factories is a lot easier than restarting the fiendishly complex mechanism governing Europe’s aviation.
The last thing governments want is for the contagion to spike again, especially if travel restrictions are lifted in the same chaotic and abrupt fashion that they were imposed. That’s raising calls for the EU to get involved.
“A coordinated approach is absolutely essential to give airlines and their passengers the certainty they need to restart their operations,” said airline lobby A4E’s spokesperson Jennifer Janzen.
Industries are worried about national authorities issuing divergent health and travel advisories. If one government says passengers ought to be 2 meters apart while another sets a 1-meter distance, airports and airlines would have to implement different policies on the ground and in the air.
Airports will likely need to install health screening procedures and infrastructure, which will require investment, resources and reorganizing staff. They would also need to know what processes will be permanent, and how long the temporary ones will last.
“Understanding what these requirements will be and shaping them is of crucial importance, as well as addressing longer-term impacts on a full range of issues — from airport layout and equipment to our economic and business models,” said airport lobby ACI-Europe’s spokesperson Virginia Lee. To help with all that, she said coordination on a European level “is an absolute must.”
The group launched an initiative to standardize guidelines among hundreds of its member airports to ensure safety and harmonization as they look to get airports ready to host air traffic again by mid-May.
Zone of disunion
All of that depends on governments — and there hasn’t been a lot of evidence that they will make life easier for the industry.
When the coronavirus pandemic began spreading in Europe, countries unilaterally imposed travel bans — effectively slamming shut the Schengen travel area and throwing both the industry and travelers into disarray. The impact has been enormous. On March 31, there were only 174,000 air passengers in Europe, a fall of 97 percent compared with a year earlier, according to ACI-Europe.
The exit strategy isn’t looking any more coordinated.
Austria and the Czech Republic, for example, this week announced plans to start easing restrictions, even as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in neighboring Hungary said: “We are extending the duration of movement restrictions. We are extending them indefinitely. We will reconsider the restrictions on a weekly basis.”
The Commission drafted a paper on how to ease travel restrictions, but countries prevented the EU executive from issuing it this week as planned because many felt the timing wasn’t right.
That presents a massive problem for industry. Even if one country announces an end to travel restrictions, any planning on an airline’s part relies on other countries doing the same — otherwise that Budapest to Brussels flight stays on the tarmac in Hungary.
“The best-case scenario is the Schengen area is reinstated, but we have big doubts over that,” said one airline official.
Aside from travel restrictions, health recommendations would also need to be coordinated, since industry predicts it will be responsible for screenings and checks. If checks for temperature or testing for the coronavirus is to become obligatory, then authorities need to issue guidelines for how to conduct such tests, and airlines and airports — and passengers too — need to adapt their schedules and resources accordingly.
Airports will need to know how to adjust and implement disinfecting and cleaning procedures, what instructions they need to issue to passengers, and the kind of infrastructural changes they may need to implement at immigration lines and security checks.
That would be much easier if the EU’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control issues universal guidelines instead of individual countries putting forward their own divergent specifications.
One EU official said regulatory divergence could not only have an impact on health outcomes, but also cause “market imbalances and competition issues.” Complying with regulations would be more costly and difficult for some airlines, airports and authorities than others, which could also impact national tourism industries in the long run.
What can industry do prepare? “We don’t have the answers yet,” the airline official said. “This is unprecedented.”
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