IATA urges governments to learn from COVID to avoid future air travel shutdowns

An empty departure hall at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. (PHOTO: Shutterstock)

https://bit.ly/3PE9HlMThe International Air Transport Association (IATA) has called on governments to apply lessons learned from the dismantling of global connectivity in response to COVID-19 to ensure that future global health threats can be effectively managed without closing borders.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has long indicated that border closures are not an effective way to manage a global pandemic. The evidence seen during the pandemic has proven this point. Most governments ignored this advice, acted in isolation from industry and other governments, and put in place measures to restrict travel. This collapsed global air connectivity with massive negative economic and human consequences.

Download IATA’s presentation on lessons learned here.

Additionally, restarting global connectivity has been made more difficult because governments continue to prioritize local solutions over global standards. Constant policy changes by governments have given most of the industry little time to prepare for the ramp-up. And international travelers can only see the global effort to manage the pandemic as illogical and uncoordinated in the face of vastly different policy responses to a common problem.

Conrad Clifford, Deputy Director General of IATA. (PHOTO: IATA)

“It is vital to restore public confidence in the government’s handling of health crises and border restrictions. Much of the damage was not caused by fear of the virus, but by fear of sudden and arbitrary border restrictions imposed by authorities. Understanding the important lessons of the pandemic will be crucial in managing future health crises in a way that ensures borders do not have to close,” said Conrad Clifford, IATA Deputy Director General.

As air traffic recovers after more than two years of crisis, three key lessons are emerging for governments.

Border measures are not an effective global strategy to control a pandemic
The WHO has long maintained that closing borders is not a solution to health crises. The evidence supports this view. Research undertaken by OXERA/Edge Health revealed that even if a new variant of COVID were discovered and travel restrictions were introduced immediately, it would only delay the peak of infections by up to four days. Although most major restrictions, such as total border closures and quarantines, have been lifted and the world is increasingly open, governments are still making travel unnecessarily difficult. Restrictions such as complicated health documents, COVID tests and the wearing of masks are still required for travel in some jurisdictions, although these requirements have been waived in domestic life. The Director General of the WHO has officially declared: “There is no reason for measures to interfere unnecessarily with international travel and trade. We call on all countries to implement evidence-based and consistent decisions. »

As passenger travel recovers, scenes like this near Singapore’s empty Changi Airport are dwindling. (PHOTO: Matt Driskill)

Governments should balance health measures with economic and social impacts
Although evidence of restrictions is unproven, the impacts of reduced air connectivity are clear. Politicians must therefore balance the economic and social benefits of air connectivity against the need for health-related travel restrictions. In 2019, aviation supported nearly 40 million jobs worldwide and supported $3.5 trillion in global GDP. And public understanding of the economic importance of air connectivity is high – 92% of travelers agree that air connectivity is “essential” to the economy (as measured in the latest IATA passenger survey). During the pandemic, 87% of passengers surveyed (September 2021) agreed that the right balance needs to be struck between managing COVID-related risks and restarting the economy. Social impacts have also been significant. The erosion of freedoms to travel meant countless lost opportunities to connect. In IATA’s latest passenger survey, two-thirds of people agree that quality of life has suffered due to COVID air travel restrictions. “We urge governments to heed WHO advice on the need to keep borders open. And we call for independent research into the effectiveness of policies that balance health measures with the social and economic benefits of air connectivity, with a view to agreeing a set of global recommendations to manage future health crises,” said Clifford.

Countries around the world are scrapping pre-departure and arrival testing to restore air travel. (FILE PHOTO: Emirates)

Traveler trust requires logical rules and clear communication
Public trust is compromised by arbitrary rulemaking and poor or contradictory information. But throughout the pandemic, the rules and messaging around border restrictions were confusing and illogical. For example, in January 2022, some 100,000 different measures affecting international travel were in place. Navigating this fragmented system of measurements has been confusing for travelers and has caused major operational complexities for operators. IATA’s passenger survey shows why it’s important for governments to take a consistent approach to travel rules. Some 59% of people still say that “understanding the rules was a real challenge”, 57% that “the paperwork was a challenge to organize” and 56% that “the travel experience was much less convenient”. Rules on wearing a mask on board are increasingly seen as unnecessary. A majority of passengers now believe masking should be stopped altogether, or should not be mandatory if it has been lifted for other environments such as offices.

To give the public greater confidence in the predictability of travel, governments should:

  • Adopt guidelines on how public health measures, once introduced, will be removed
  • Simplify and digitize travel bureaucracy and paperwork through common standards and mutual recognition of digital health credentials.

“Already 71% of travelers think they should travel like they did before the pandemic. As the return to normal accelerates, we will be back in a world where our greatest concerns focus on the sustainable growth of aviation. But that doesn’t mean governments and industry should forget the lessons of this pandemic. There will be more global health threats. Applying the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic to future health crises is the best way to ensure that the sacrifices made by millions have not been wasted,” said Clifford.

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