Lessons learned from COVID-19 could improve management of future pandemics by the US aviation industry

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The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the US aviation industry. Passenger traffic in April 2020 was 96% lower than in April 2019 and remained 60% below 2019 levels in 2020. The effects rippled through airports, repair shops and the supply chain . For example, in response to reduced demand, airlines have parked or removed many planes, which has reduced the demand for maintenance. Airport equipment manufacturers have also suffered, although some may have adapted or created equipment to directly aid pandemic response efforts, such as cleaning units or temperature control.

To help the industry, more than $ 100 billion in federal assistance has been provided and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has provided temporary relief from certain regulatory requirements and guidance.

Stakeholders have also taken their own steps to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic and position themselves to maintain the viability of the business until demand increases. These actions included cost management, such as the implementation of early retirement programs; raise funds on the private market to increase liquidity; and take action to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among employees and customers. In some cases, airports have suspended or canceled expansion and construction projects.

To reassure and win back travelers, some airlines and airports have implemented contactless technology to reduce interactions between passengers and employees, such as the addition of automated baggage drop-offs and biometric identity checks. Other airports have put in place consistent messaging and expectations regarding mask and social distancing requirements across their hubs to help passengers deal with differences in requirements across destinations. While some of these measures, such as contactless technology, can be sustained over the long term, others have changed as public health needs have evolved with the rollout of vaccines and the start of recovery from disease. pandemic.

On June 11, 2021, 2 million people passed through Transportation Security Administration airport security checkpoints, the highest level since March 7, 2020. However, the TSA said it had screened 1,607,238 air passengers on August 17, a decrease of 28% compared to the 2,238,462 passengers screened on August 17. 1st of August. Airlines also began to record a further decline in August.

Although airlines saw a rebound in demand for pleasure travel to the United States in 2021, operational challenges and concerns over the COVID-19 Delta variant have slowed the recovery as business travel and International air travel – the most profitable segments – is lagging behind.

Speakers spoke with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and identified areas of concern for policymakers to consider, such as strengthening aviation workforce pipelines, as they determine how or whether to continue to help the industry under changing market conditions.

According to stakeholders, passenger confidence in the air travel experience could have been restored more quickly if the federal government had provided greater coordination and guidance earlier in the pandemic regarding, among other things, COVID-19 testing , masking requirements, and basic measures — such as disinfecting and updating signage, which airports and airlines could adopt. Some said the inconsistency in procedures for passengers between origin and destination airports was a major challenge.

The GAO reiterated its call for a national aviation preparedness plan for communicable diseases to ensure better coordination between federal and industry stakeholders and to help better prepare the United States for future pandemics.

Such a plan would provide a mechanism for the public health and aviation sectors to coordinate to limit the spread of communicable disease threats and minimize impacts on trade and travel. Without it, the GAO says the United States might not be as prepared to minimize and respond quickly to future communicable disease threats. Members of the House and Senate have introduced bills in support of this issue. In February 2021, HR 884, the 2021 National Aviation Readiness Plan Act, 106 was introduced to the House of Representatives, and in May 2021, the 2021 Sky Health Security Act, 107 has been favorably reported by the Senate committee. on commerce, science and transport.

Globally, on October 22, more than 50 country representatives and heads of 24 international organizations completed a comprehensive review of pandemic priorities for global air transport. The outcome of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) conference on COVID-19 was a declaration formalizing new commitments on border risk management and vaccination approaches, strengthening air transport for sustainability and future resilience in the event of a pandemic; and other key priorities aimed at accelerating air transport. resumption of tourism and commerce and reconnecting the world.

The declaration commits countries to adopt a multi-level risk management strategy for international civil aviation that is adaptable, proportionate, non-discriminatory and guided by scientific evidence.

To boost global public confidence in air travel, countries stressed that while vaccination should not be a prerequisite for travel, it is highly desirable that it be used to facilitate increased international mobility. Countries agreed to work with ICAO and other stakeholders to ensure interoperability and accessibility of secure applications to validate pandemic-related testing, vaccination and recovery certification.

They also pledged to promote, to the extent possible, a harmonized and inclusive approach, including easing or exempting testing and / or quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated or recovered passengers, taking into account different circumstances of each state and its national policies. This is in line with the current recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Additional commitments have focused heavily on the long-term sustainability of the air transport sector, both in terms of future resilience to new epidemics of infectious diseases and the need to meet the challenge of climate change.

Another deal was struck around the financial support needed to support airline operators and regulators over the next few months critical to the sector recovery, and to address key priorities for passenger safety and facilitation as the airline network global returns to full operational capacity.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the aviation industry, in the United States and around the world, are unprecedented. Experts strongly believe this will not be the last global pandemic and so it is imperative that as the industry rebuilds itself better, it does not forget the lessons it has learned.

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