Examining the Impact of Pandemic on Civil Aviation

Often, we do not realise the value of what we have until it is taken away from us. Air travel, unfortunately, has become one of those needs during the pandemic. The effect of COVID-19 on the airlines has been so intense that it has grown to redefine almost every aspect of civil aviation industry. Experts are unsure if the industry will ever be able to come out of the slump, ever. According to ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation), the industry has faced a revenue loss of USD 371 billion in the year 2020. The hesitancy of people to fly and the lockdowns and restrictions being imposed by the governments across the world is only adding salt to the wound. “World passenger traffic collapses with unprecedented decline in history” says ICAO  in its latest report on the economic impacts of COVID-19 on civil aviation. The report compares the decline in passenger traffic during several crises in history like the oil crisis, the Iran-Iraq war, Gulf war, Asian economic crisis, the 9/11 terror attack, SARS crisis and the global financial crisis to the current situation. The comparison clearly displays the historic decline in air passenger traffic of the world like never before. The overall reduction of seats by the airlines during the pandemic was over fifty percent in the year 2020 and is around 34% in 2021. The overall reduction of passengers is around 48% in 2021, which is about two thousand five hundred million passengers across the world who are declining the option to travel through flights.

As a result of declining demand in air travel, the airlines are so affected that they have no choice but to take up measures to control the damage. And these measures are favourable neither to the passengers nor to the airline industry. For instance, the airlines cancel several routes that either have low passenger turnout or are inaccessible due to governmental restrictions. This leads to huge loss of jobs (which is not favourable for the employees of the airlines) and leads to a crisis for the passengers who need the services for emergencies (which is unfavorable to the passengers). This sudden turbulence in the airline industry due to the unprecedented pandemic has affected the employees adversely. About 50% of job cuts were announced by major airlines last year which led to huge unemployment of people who used to work in airports and airline offices apart from the flying crew that includes pilots and air hosts. The job losses are not merely exclusive to the airline industry but also to the industries that are directly related to the airline industry like aircraft manufacturing companies. The gigantic and unusual job losses are simply too heavy for the global economy to bear with.

The difficult time that the airline industry is facing at the moment has a great impact on the global economy as the industry is indirectly linked to many other industries of secondary and tertiary sectors across the world. Air travel includes cargo and delivery services for other industries which clearly explains the commercial purpose of airlines and its influence on all sectors in the global economy. The devastating financial and economic losses caused by the airline industry under the clasp of COVID-19 is estimated by the organisations such as ICAO, IATA (International Air Transport Association), ACI (Airports Council International) , UNWTO (the UN World Tourism Organisation), WTO (World Trade Organisation) and IMF (International Monetary Fund). The global economy, as estimated by the aforesaid organisations, is said to have contracted by 3.5% – 4.3%.

While the economic impact of COVID-19 on the airline industry looks gloomy (to describe it in the most cheerful way), the environmental impact due to the decline in air passenger traffic is something to smile about. Before the pandemic, the tourism industry was flourishing, especially with the huge travel boom that offered low-cost air travel across the world. Anyone can catch a plane to go anywhere in the world. This meant that for the first time in aviation history, the gap between the middle-class and the elites was as slim as it could get. This encouraged more people to travel which at the surface seemed good. But, the swarming people in tourist destinations (especially the attractions of nature) resulted in a great neglect of environmental impacts. For instance, recently, Mount Everest had to face traffic of mountain climbers who had to form a queue to the summit (the picture went viral on Internet). Another great example is Barcelona. The city had excessive and constant tourist inflow that led to the resistance from the locals who grew impatient with the intrusion of tourism in their daily affairs. Indonesia is yet another example of the environmental impact of excessive tourist activities. Tourism contributes to almost 80% of the country’s economy. But, soon, it became increasingly difficult for the country to handle the environmental degradation caused by tourist activities. Although it seemed like the government was not ready to lose the revenue from tourism, Indonesia had no choice but to comply with the sudden decline in tourism due to the pandemic. This has given the country a window to replenish its nature.

It is funny how mankind is defeated by nature every single time even with all the advancements that humans have managed to achieve through ages. Throughout the pandemic, particularly since the infamous lockdowns began in 2020, we have been hearing about the positive environmental changes that are the direct result of sudden decrease in human intervention. As they say, every cloud has a silver lining. This is entirely true for environmental changes in the world during the pandemic era.

Needless to say, the airline industry is hugely affected by the pandemic. But the industry will have a revival sooner or later. What we do not know is if it will ever be able to function as it used to in the pre-COVID-19epoch. Say, if it does get back to normalcy, we will then have to seek an answer to the next question: How long before the industry gets back on its feet and reaches the pre-COVID-19 state of affairs?

While the answer to that question remains uncertain, we can make some sense at how the airline industry will cope, with respect to bringing back its passengers, by looking backwards in time. Every quandary that the industry has faced so far has been overcome. For instance, the 9/11 disaster led to the tightening security checks and airport screenings. Locked cockpits became a norm. The United Kingdom, a few years after the 9/11 terror attack, unearthed a terrorist plan to bomb planes using explosive liquids. As a result, even today, the passengers cannot carry liquids more than the designated amount into the airports. Likewise, the pandemic will increase such measures by the industry that will be imposed on passengers. The wearing of face masks might be made mandatory for the years to come. The sanitisation of hands will be another norm that will stay for a long while. The use of restrooms and lavatories will be more than discouraged while flying. In fact, one of the suggestions of ICAO to the air passengers is to limit the use of restrooms in planes. Moreover, the waiting period for security check and other document verification procedures will be increased (much to the pain of the passengers), owing to the newly brought requirements like COVID-19 test negative certificate (RTPCR) and more recently, the vaccination certificates that are to be submitted by the passengers.

But, these are simply the protocols that restrict our potentially virus-spreading habits while travelling, in order to protect ourselves from catching the virus. What is to be noted is the financial changes that are to be imposed on air passengers post-COVID-19 era. We know about the separate seating arrangements being implemented in airplanes during the pandemic. This practise might not be here to stay as it incurs loss for the airline companies. Thus, the airline companies will resort to increasing prices of the tickets to compensate for the vacant middle seats instead of troubling the middle-seat passengers to wear protective gear to ensure their own safety.

The increase in ticket prices will be a possible outcome for another reason. It is highly likely that social distancing will stay to be a mandatory protocol of the passengers for the coming years. Proper sanitisation of aircrafts and cleanliness will be on demand by the industry standards for which the airlines will have to comply. To carry out these measures, that too consistently, means the airline companies must spend more money. Therefore, the industry will end up compensating the expenditure for these measures by increasing ticket prices. Eventually, the idea that the exorbitant ticket prices must be borne by the passengers will discourage the passengers from travelling by air. The forecast, thus, for this decade is that it is probable that air travel is sure going to be a costly affair.

Researchers predict that the airline industry will slowly and gradually begin to kick back to normalcy after the year 2023. But, it is undeniable that the pandemic has changed air travel forever!

Humankind faces yet another predicament. But, as Yuval Noah Harari says in his book Homo Deus, “…at the dawn of the third millennium, humanity wakes up to an amazing realization…….problems have not been completely solved, but they have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. We know quite well what needs to be done in order to prevent plague and we usually succeed in doing it.” And hopefully, we will succeed this time too.

– Subiksha Kumar (Freelancer)

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