Almost 50 years of aviation history came to an end this week when British Airways’ last two Boeing 747 aircraft left the airline’s London Heathrow base for the final time. At one stage, the UK flag carrier was the biggest operator of the jumbo jet, the plane that brought in the era of mass air travel. The aircraft were already on their way out but coronavirus, which has crippled world aviation, hastened their departure. Airlines everywhere are burning through cash and laying off thousands of employees as demand remains far below pre-pandemic levels. An estimated 30 per cent of the global fleet is still grounded.
Governments have put in place a range of travel restrictions and quarantine requirements to help contain the spread of the virus. Yet these patchwork approaches are not only sowing confusion for passengers but proving to be the main barrier against any hope of a meaningful recovery for the sector. News in the UK this week of the formation of a cross-government “travel task force” to assess Covid-19 testing for international passenger arrivals is a step in the right direction. So too, is the start of trials of a digital health pass that would certify passengers are free of the virus before boarding a plane. The hope is that the CommonPass project, which is backed by the World Economic Forum, will eventually establish standard certifications for Covid-19 test results.
But there is no clarity on the timescale for delivery of meaningful steps that would restart international air travel, rebuild passenger confidence and limit corporate failures. With a vaccine likely to be many months away, it is hard to see how civil aviation, as well as the travel industry more broadly, can return to pre-pandemic levels without the adoption of some form of rigorous testing.
Britain remains far behind its European neighbours in testing arrivals from high-risk countries. Heathrow airport has had a testing facility for incoming passengers ready to use since August but ministers have been reluctant to give it the green light. The efficacy of the government’s 14-day self-isolation requirement for incoming passengers has, rightly, come under scrutiny as concerns rise that many are simply flouting the rules. In the US, airport safety protocols differ between different states.
A globally consistent approach to testing would require harmonisation of standards, specifically whether single tests at airports are sufficient or not. Grant Shapps, the UK transport secretary, this week said the government did not support the use of a single test on arrival as an alternative to self-isolation. With infection numbers on the rise and travel confidence among passengers still low, a cautious approach would be sensible. Some scientists have argued that a two-test system — with a test pre-boarding and then a second seven days later — would increase the level of successful tests to 94 per cent. Such testing would not remove all risk but it would enable shorter isolation periods.
The question of which institutions, if any at all, might enforce a global regime has to be settled. But a bilateral approach would be a good start. Some industry groups have called for an air corridor between London and New York, one of the world’s busiest routes. It would rely on the British and US governments agreeing to a pilot project. If successful, this could be rolled out more widely. The rapid spread of Covid-19 may have exposed all the downsides of a connected world, but standardised protocols on testing offer the best hope of a return to the skies for millions of travellers.