COVID-19 has caused unexpected disruption to the air transport industry, but cross-sector cooperation can help airlines navigate through these difficult times

The COVID-19 crisis is a health challenge for the world. And the impacts on our industry are devastating. Initially we saw a $30 billion loss of revenue for a crisis that was centered on China. As the virus spreads, the impact grows.

Aviation is vulnerable to crises—SARS, the tragic events of 9/11, skyrocketing oil prices or the Global Financial Crisis—just to name a few events in recent memory. These all tested the mettle of our industry. And we emerged stronger. 

That’s why aviation is also closely associated with the word resilience. 

There is no clearly understood path or model that we can map this crisis to. There are too many unknowns. But there are at least three things that we do know. They serve as calls to action.

As governments develop stimulus plans to combat economic damage, the air transport industry should not be forgotten

The first is the importance of global standards. The International Health Regulations (IHR) are a ready-made and well thought template for precisely the public health emergency in which we find ourselves today. Airlines are following them. But too many governments are imposing measures outside of the agreed system. 

The World Health Organization is the keeper of the IHR. And they continuously advise against restrictions on trade and travel. They have also endorsed the standards and best practices that we have as an industry to keep our passengers, crew and planes safe. 

The second known is that governments have a role and interest in supporting connectivity. We are calling on them to suspend the 80-20 use-it-or-lose-it rule for airport slot allocation.  This will enable airlines to flexibly meet demand as it evolves (and in some cases dissolves) without worrying about the damage it will do to the next year’s schedule. 

As governments develop stimulus plans to combat economic damage, the air transport industry should not be forgotten. Lowering airport fees, charges and taxes are well within the remit of most governments. And this critical relief can mean the difference between maintaining connectivity or abandoning a route.

And the third known is that our passengers are concerned about flying. They want reassurance. While there is no zero-risk environment, the travel experience is lower risk than most, given the temperature screening at key hubs. The air onboard the aircraft is refreshed and filtered to the level of a hospital operating theater. And if we all fly responsibly—that means not flying when sick, washing hands frequently and keeping good respiratory hygiene—an aircraft cabin is a lower risk environment than most other pubic enjoinments. We need to get this message out.

These three ‘knowns’ are important. But they won’t magically make passengers re-appear. It is going to be a tough year for us all. IATA is in crisis mode. And are sparing no effort in reminding governments of the importance of global standards and taking critical measures to keep economies linked. 

In the long-term, there is one more ‘known” and it is probably the most important. It is that people want to travel, explore and push boundaries in ways that only air transport can enable. As an industry we will keep the planet connected. We are resilient. And we will get through this crisis, together.