Airlines and airports in Asia-Pacific are looking ahead to how travel behaviour may need to change and the necessary measures to reassure the travelling public as they cautiously prepare to restart operations after the Covid-19 crisis.
The spread of Covid-19 has wiped out air travel, leaving skies empty and airports home to a growing fleet of grounded planes. Many expect that when flying restarts, airports will have to find ways to ensure people keep their distance during security screening or while shopping at airports, while airlines will need to leave seats free to ensure physical distancing.
Subhas Menon, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA), tells Cirium: “The growing view is that this pandemic will take time to abate, and we must all learn to adapt accordingly.”
Airlines and airports say they must work hand in hand with governments and health authorities to achieve this. They also have to wait until countries deem it safe enough to relax travel restrictions, a timeline that is impossible to predict.
Stefano Baronci, director general of Airports Council International (ACI) Asia-Pacific, tells Cirium: “As we look to the recovery phase, we will need to make a concerted effort to assure the travelling public that airports and air transport are safe, from a health perspective.”
He highlights that airports in the Asia-Pacific region were quick to ramp up health screenings, hygiene and other measures to contain the spread of the virus. One way to restore passenger confidence in travelling during the recovery period will be to step up health screenings, he says.
ACI Asia-Pacific is therefore encouraging the wider adoption of measures, such as temperature screening and health declarations for arriving and departing passengers, on-site medical staff, and promoting health culture among airport staff.
CONSISTENCY IS KEY
AAPA’s Menon says departure screening measures will be just one of the precautions needed, while security checkpoints, immigration and other airport facilities may also need to be revised. Global consistency is key, he argues.
He adds that airlines have already started more stringent cleaning procedures, and are in talks with various authorities, including ICAO, WHO and IATA on other possible measures.
“We need to follow an evidence-based approach incorporating appropriate guidance from medical and public health professionals,” Menon says.
In Australia, Qantas says it has stepped up cleaning of its aircraft with strong disinfectant, highlighting that its routine cleaning process includes tray tables, armrests, air vents, entertainment screens, handles and latches.
Indian carriers Indigo and GoAir have also said they are boosting cleaning measures as they prepare to restart flights after the country’s lockdown ends.
Such measures will add cost and complexity for airports and airlines that are already fighting for survival.
Air New Zealand chief revenue officer Cam Wallace points out, via his Twitter account, that distancing passengers by blocking off seats means losing 30-50% of an aircraft’s capacity.
ACI Asia Pacific Baronci says social distancing requirements will also mean lower throughput of passengers at airports.
He adds, “Health monitoring and/or disinfecting facilities will prolong turnaround times of airplanes. Also, consider the added complexity of transferring through airport hubs will become more complex.”
Still, with recovery predicted to take months, if not years, airlines and airports are not expecting to be overrun with passengers any time soon.
Baronci predicts, “Different from the V-shape recovery experienced during the 2009 financial crisis, we are forecasting an L-shaped recovery, defined as a sharp downturn with a lengthy recovery period and demand not returning to pre-Covid-19 traffic levels until 2022.”
He says this will result in reduced revenues from airport charges, even as airports grapple with high fixed costs.
“From a commercial perspective, the reduction in foot traffic, social distancing measures, enhanced hygiene measures will undoubtedly impact the retailers at airports and subsequently the airports,” he adds.
AAPA’s Menon also expects that when travel resumes it may be a “slow and sporadic process”.
Story by Victoria Bryan of Cirium