One year after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic which then shut down aviation, the main association representing the globe’s airlines is touting its digital health certificate as the way to reopen international travel. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), said its Travel Pass was successfully used on a flight from Singapore to London and could be used to reopen the world. The association also said farewell to its outgoing director general and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, whose term ends at the end of March. De Juniac will be replaced by Willie Walsh, the former IAG CEO.
“The successful implementation of IATA Travel Pass in this trial with Singapore Airlines passengers demonstrates that technology can securely, conveniently and efficiently help travellers and governments to manage travel health credentials. The significance of this to re-starting international aviation cannot be overstated,” said de Juniac.
The IATA Travel Pass is just one of several digital health certificates that are being rolled out globally to provide airlines, passengers and governments a way to verify the COVID-19 status of travellers. Not all the applications, which run on smartphones, adhere to the same standards which is proving to be a problem in gaining global acceptance for their use.
De Juniac, in his last media conference as director general on 17 March, said the key to reopening global aviation was to replace quarantines with testing and or vaccination requirements. “So long as governments maintain quarantine requirements, there will be no restart. With ample testing capacity, testing to travel is the first option. And with more and more people being vaccinated, there is a growing population that should be able to travel without restriction,” de Juniac said. “One key element is still missing: secure digital standards for testing and vaccination certificates. We moved a step closer to this with the latest ICAO CART recommendations which were announced on Friday. This should encourage governments to accept digital certificates. But we still need the global standards being worked on by WHO and OECD. With millions of vaccines already being distributed and the EU committed to its Green Pass, you could say this already is late in coming.”
The past year
De Juniac, in his media conference, said COVID-19 “continues to be a global tragedy” and what has happened to aviation over the past year is “nothing less than catastrophic”. He pointed out that global “demand fell through the floor with the decline eclipsing that following 9/11, SARS or the global financial crisis”. This in turn caused a “de-connecting of the world”, de Juniac said.
“Before the crisis there were about 30,000 unique international routes between airports. Now there’s about 12,000. And the density of those connections has become much thinner. Before the crisis the average route was served by about 43 flights per month. Now it’s around 20 flights per month, not even daily. The massive loss of connectivity depressed economies worldwide—essentially shutting down international tourism, conventions, exhibitions, and the like along with flying,” de Juniac said, adding that in terms of passenger demand, the industry has reverted to the levels seen in 1998, a decline of about 66 percent.
De Juniac pointed out that cargo “was a different story” and this sector returned to 2019 levels by January. “What is being shipped has changed with the crisis. But people still rely on fast and efficient delivery of goods. And that is certainly true with the critical role that air cargo is playing when delivering vaccines,” he said.
“In sum, there is light at the end of the very long tunnel,” de Juniac said. “More and more people are being vaccinated. While we believe that vaccines will play an important role in opening borders, they are not a silver bullet. Testing will also play a role. That will ensure that those who cannot be, or prefer not to be vaccinated, will have an opportunity to travel.” De Juniac also said governments need to continue to provide relief to the aviation sector, but not financial measures that will add to an already debt-burdened industry. He added that the industry needs planning because it cannot be restarted “with the flip of a switch”.
“It will require careful planning to take aircraft out of long-term storage, to ensure crew qualifications, to recall laid off employees, to reopen closed terminals and so on,” de Juniac said. “We can only be ready to energise the recovery from day one if governments have a plan and share it with us.”
IATA AGM postponed
De Juniac noted that the association’s annual general meeting, which had been set for June, will be postponed to 3-5 October and will be held in Boston in the US with JetBlue Airways as the host. The delay is being caused by travel restrictions and quarantines, but de Juniac said he was confident the meeting would go ahead in person with a physical event and that the association’s members were all slated to attend. “We believe that it is vital to do all we can to meet as an industry face to face,” de Juniac said. “Doing so will affirm that airlines can safely connect the world, demonstrate our industry’s resilience, and confirm the inestimable value of in-person meetings, facilitated by aviation.”