A coordinated set of health and safety measures drawn up by the aviation industry’s international regulatory body will help the sector to take off again

As COVID-19 hit its peak worldwide, aviation delivered vital aid, including equipment and medicines. Now, attention is turning to another cornerstone of air transport—supporting jobs and economic activity around the world.

Specifically, aviation is needed to kickstart a global economy that has slipped into a recession that many fear will bite deeper than that experienced in the financial crisis of 2008-09.

Long-term gain

However,  it has become clear that restarting the industry will not be a simple matter of picking up where it left off.

“At first, the global lockdown was viewed as short-term pain for long-term gain,” says Nick Careen, IATA’s Senior Vice President, Airport, Passenger, Cargo, and Security. “But even in March it became apparent that there would be a need for a structured restart. We had seen after 9/11 what could happen if the industry wasn’t properly consulted and prepared and we wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again.”

After 9/11, security rules surrounding liquids and gels, removing shoes and taking items out of hand baggage proliferated, not necessarily in a harmonized manner. Subsequent improvements in security technology and data provision have made many measures obsolete, but governments are loathe to recalibrate. The result is a patchwork quilt of security measures.

Avoiding a similar patchwork of health and safety measures is at the heart of ICAO’S Takeoff guidance document, issued by the COVID-19 Aviation Recovery Task Force (CART).

Takeoff proposes a phased approach and a set of generally applicable measures, including:   

  • Physical distancing where feasible, and risk-based measures where it is not, for example in aircraft cabins  
  • The wearing of face coverings by passengers and aviation workers  
  • Routine sanitation and disinfection of areas that could potentially harbor the virus  
  • Health screening, that could include pre- and post-flight self-declarations, as well as temperature screening and visual observation, conducted by health professionals  
  • Contact tracing for passengers and aviation employees: updated contact information should be requested as part of the health self-declaration, with any interactions made directly though government portals  
  • Passenger health declaration forms, including self-declarations in line with the recommendations of relevant health authorities. Electronic tools should be encouraged, to avoid the use of paper; and  
  • Testing, if and when real-time, rapid and reliable testing becomes available.

“The universal implementation of global standards has made aviation safe,” says Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO. “A similar approach is critical in this crisis so that we can safely restore air connectivity as borders and economies re-open. The Takeoff guidance document was built with the best expertise of government and industry. Airlines strongly support it.

“Now we are counting on governments to implement the recommendations quickly, because the world wants to travel again and needs airlines to play a key role in the economic recovery. And we must do this with global harmonization and mutual recognition of efforts to earn the confidence of travelers and air transport workers.”

Layered biosecurity

IATA played a key role in developing Takeoff and has also issued Biosafety for Air Transport: A Roadmap for Restarting Aviation, designed to guide the implementation of Takeoff recommendations. The roadmap outlines a multi-layered, evidence-based biosecurity approach using existing technologies.

The aim is to give governments and passengers the confidence that air travel is ready to resume. “The vital element is co-ordination,” says de Juniac. “If we don’t take these first steps in a harmonized way, we’ll spend many painful years recovering ground that shouldn’t have been lost.”

Pre-flight, governments will need to collect passenger data, including health information. This can be done using well-tested channels already in place for eVisa or electronic travel authorization programs. As IATA’s Careen stresses, the key here is for governments to share the data. To address privacy concerns, data will only be referenced when necessary and purged after a certain period of time.

Layers of protective measures need to be implemented at the departure airport. In the first instance, the hope is that the airport, landside as well as airside, can be kept as sterile as possible to reduce the possibility of aviation being a meaningful spreader of the virus.

Access to the airport will therefore be limited, and temperature screening in place. Importantly, this must be a job for trained government staff. As Careen notes, “responsibility cannot be offloaded, and an airline agent is not a nurse.”

Meanwhile, social distancing will be enabled where possible to manage queues, and face coverings will be in use for passengers and staff in line with local regulations.

Contact points will be reduced, so check-in should be done online, including the self-printing of bag tags. Bags drops will be automated, and self-boarding implemented.

Seat changes will not be permitted at short notice to ease contact tracing efforts.

Of course, cleaning and sanitization will be a priority, and hand sanitizers widely available.

“Now the industry has restarted, we are in a much better position to advocate for One ID and a host of associated initiatives”

Face coverings

In flight, IATA foresees several layers of protective measures:  

  • Face coverings will be required for all passengers and non-surgical masks for crew.  
  • Simplified cabin service and pre-packaged catering to reduce interaction between passengers and crew.  
  • Reduced  gathering of passengers in the cabin, for example by prohibiting queues for washrooms.  
  • Enhanced and more frequent deep cleaning of the cabin.

At the arrival airport, there may be further temperature screening if required by the authorities. Customs and border control should be automated and include the use of mobile applications and biometric technologies. An accelerated processing and baggage reclaim will enable social distancing by reducing congestion and queuing.

Finally, health declarations and robust contact tracing should be undertaken by governments to reduce the risk of imported chains of transmission.

Careen says that COVID-19 testing and immunity passports would be integrated once the science is proven. Testing at the start of the process would create a sterile travel environment that would reassure travelers and governments and make some other measures unnecessary.

It is also the case that most measures are viewed as temporary. IATA recommends all measures are regularly reviewed, replaced when more efficient options are identified or removed should they become unnecessary.

Importantly, IATA remains opposed to social distancing on board aircraft—leaving the middle seat free—and quarantine measures on arrival. The former is not necessary with face coverings in place and the proven low risk of virus transmission inflight, while the latter are obviated by the combination of temperature checks and contract tracing.

Principles guiding industry restart

The CEOs of airlines on IATA’s Board of Governors have agreed that, as air transport restarts, aviation will     

  • Always put safety and security first     
  • Respond flexibly as the crisis and science evolve     
  • Be a key driver of the economic recovery     
  • Meet its environment targets     
  • Operate to global standards that are harmonized and mutually recognized by governments

“Even as the pandemic continues, the foundations for an industry re-start are being laid through close collaboration of the air transport industry with ICAO, the World Health Organization, individual governments and other parties,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO. “Much work, however, remains to be done. By committing to these principles, the leaders of the world’s airlines will guide the safe, responsible and sustainable re-start of our vital economic sector. Flying is our business. And it is everyone’s shared freedom.”

Global recognition

In addition to publishing the Roadmap, IATA has made the recommendations part of its Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) so airlines will need to show they can implement them. Regulatory bodies have asked for this move, and IATA is confident that IOSA is the right vehicle to ensure that best practices are followed.

“This should provide a set of globally recognized measures,” says Careen. “There are a lot of recommendations to consider but without these measures passengers would not travel. What we are proposing is the right compromise between minimizing the risk of contamination and a seamless system for passengers.”

But this is not a time for governments to regard it as a job done. Slots remain an issue and there will need to be assurances that airlines will not lose slots in the recovery phase when demand is still limited.

Insurance is another area where there is a huge role for governments to play. More thought also needs to be given to the entire logistical value chain. It was estimated that 100,000 ship crew needed to move freely around the world when lockdown hit, for example. Without crew being able to fly to fulfil new assignments, the maritime industry would have shut down, causing irreparable damage to world trade. And there are still countries where delivering vital supplies is problematic for air cargo, due to regulatory restrictions.

As for cost, Careen suggests that this will be shared by the various stakeholders. Most measures are simply process changes, rather than technological implementations.

Passenger experience

Although the work has been challenging, the opportunity is there to rewrite the passenger experience, according to Careen.

“Hindsight is always 20/20, but it is now clear why we have been pushing One ID,” he says of IATA’s effort to establish a single biometric identifier for air travel. “If we had a faster uptake of One ID, a touchless, seamless process would already be in place.

“Now the industry has restarted, we are in a much better position to advocate for One ID and a host of associated initiatives,” he adds.

The Roadmap’s recommendations will be an essential part of future travel even if they are not always in use.

“We want to get to the point where these measures can be turned on or off,” Careen concludes. “It would mean that in any similar crisis, we can prevent the grinding halt of the industry that we experienced in March 2020.

“A year from now, face coverings might not be necessary, but we should never be in a position where these measures can’t be implemented immediately. Having them as part of IOSA means they should always be active and available.”

Travel corridors

Air travel is already happening. Load factors for domestic services in China are up to about 60% and various countries are establishing travel corridors, such as between the Baltic states and between Australia and New Zealand

“We will learn from the implementation of travel corridors,” says Nick Careen, IATA’s Senior Vice President, Airport, Passenger, Cargo, and Security. “For example, what is the risk-matrix governments are using to allow travel? We would like to understand how and why they are doing things and, if appropriate, leverage their ideas. Most travel corridors implement measures consistent with our recommendations.”