If the current depressed state of airline connectivity has anything going for it, it’s that at least most carriers know where they stand – even if that place is unremittingly bleak.
Across the world, airlines are approaching the end of 2020 resigned to the next few months being characterised by widespread travel restrictions and traffic at a fraction of the highs of 2019.
A consensus is building, however, that come the end of the first quarter of 2021, things might start to improve in connectivity terms, particularly following positive vaccine developments in recent weeks.
At the same time, however, there is a real risk that a reduction in the threat posed by Covid-19 might only further expose a messy operating environment for international travel, stymieing the sector’s ability to take advantage of the virus’s reduced prevalence.
The concept of travel bubbles is a prime example of this problem playing out. By their very nature, bubbles complicate connectivity by tearing up the old order – in terms of temporarily overriding previous air services agreements, and often excluding airlines that aren’t based in either of the two countries.
In many ways, they are the antithesis of the “business of freedom” that IATA advocates.
And that’s if the bubbles operate as intended.
The experience with the on-again, off-again Hong Kong-Singapore agreement shows that travel bubbles might not even offer stability to the few airlines they are designed to benefit. Rather, they could become a series of windows that are liable to shut at short notice if one party gets jitters about Covid-19 infection levels.
Then consider testing.
IATA is pushing hard for a universal approach to Covid-19 testing to open up international markets.
So far, however, progress has been limited.
Rather than any global agreements on such a system, there are arguably stronger indications that a patchwork of testing regimes might spring up, allowing some markets to operate while others are not so fortunate.
It is therefore likely that in some cases, much-maligned Covid-19 quarantine measures could remain in place.
Even successful vaccines bring potential complications.
First, governments may decide to require any incoming travellers to provide evidence of being vaccinated, which would inevitably weigh on demand while inoculation programmes are rolled out at different speeds in different countries.
Second, regardless of government requirements, airlines will need to decide whether or not to mandate that only vaccinated travellers can travel on their services – a reasonable stipulation, but one that could again weigh on demand.
Amid all this uncertainty, some governments – probably including those that have been successful at controlling the spread of the virus so far with “zero-Covid” strategies – might adopt a wait-and-see attitude towards the opening up of their borders.
Of course, many of the factors outlined might prove to be short-term considerations.
Initiatives such as IATA’s proposed Travel Pass app also theoretically offer airlines and passengers an easy way to access testing and vaccination records, aiding their ability to navigate a complicated travel environment.
And it is possible to imagine, for example, the vaccine rollout exceeding expectations to the point where, in some international markets at least, further health measures are wound down as the year progresses.
But it is also possible to imagine a scenario where the patchwork of testing regimes, quarantine requirements, vaccine mandates and closed borders endure into 2022.
Incoming IATA director general Willie Walsh’s assessment that “we need now, more than ever, an effective industry body to serve and respond to our interests”, appears to be right on the money.