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Biosecurity, air transport and the impact of COVID-19

Picture of Rafael Muga

Rafael Muga

AERTEC / Airport planning & Design

Air passenger transport has always stood out for the high safety standards this segment of the aeronautics market demands. There is no doubt that safety has been, and will always be, one of the fundamental requirements for providing this service.

Currently, in addition to the physical safety of people, buildings and facilities, there is a concern for the concept of health protection, or “biosecurity”. The latter refers to the regulations, protocols, technologies and practices that prevent health risks from exposure to biological agents that cause infectious diseases.

Today, there is a greater need than ever to make airline passengers feel safe – in terms of both physical integrity and health.

“Biosecurity” is the key for the air sector to recover as quickly as possible. The entire sector is mired in a systemic crisis caused by a health crisis. Air traffic data is deeply discouraging; at the most critical points in the pandemic (border closures, confinement), traffic dropped more than 90% compared to similar periods in previous years according to statistics from EUROCONTROL, IATA, AENA and other international organisms.

The health crisis is particularly impacting the tourist sector in Mediterranean countries. Outbreaks in these areas are practically suffocating the slight signs of recovery seen on the horizons of the summer season. And, tourism is the main source of air traffic around the world.

Therefore, a rapid recovery strategy could involve guidelines such as the following:

First, in the short term: adopt and improve measures that prevent spread of the virus.

The air sector must not be a “hot spot”. Every means possible must be deployed to prevent airports becoming an open channel for spreading the virus internationally. COVID-19 is not yet under control, even though everything indicates an effective vaccine could provide a mid-term solution: the results of some laboratories are encouraging, and the first patent applications are in. In the meantime, until a safe vaccine is available for everyone, the spread of the virus must be controlled. In this respect, it is striking that the World Health Organization (WHO) affirms that governments have not employed all the resources or carried out all the measures necessary to effectively fight the spread of the disease.

Second: recover passenger trust in air travel.

It is essential to prevent “fear” spreading like the virus. This means protection measures must be standardised at the international level.  It makes no sense that passenger security controls differ from one airport to another. This can send a certain message of “lack of safety or control” when passengers notice that the measures taken at the airport of departure have nothing to do with those waiting at the airport of arrival.

One of the advantages of the aeronautics sector is that it operates in an international context, in such a way that, at the technical level, the sector relies globally on the same reference guidelines (OACI).

In this context, the OACI has already produced a document (“Doc 10144 ICAO Handbook for CAAs on the Management of Aviation Safety Risks related to COVID-19”). However, it is advisable to create a new monographic Annex on Global Biosecurity (as this is a global threat) to harmonise the measures to be taken in the face of this, and future, pandemics. This could take time and is not expected to be published in the mid-term, but the effort must be made.

Third: learn.

Current security levels have been achieved thanks to a continuous process of learning from past lessons. The various controls in any airport today arose mainly to prevent hijacking, terrorist attacks, illicit interference with aircraft or any type of criminal activity and the damaging repercussions these incurred in the past. This is why learning is vital and protection measures must continually evolve.

In the same way that 9/11 provoked change, and improvements were made to increase passenger safety, the COVID19 pandemic has made it necessary to consider new security measures in airports.

Today, more than ever, there is a need to make passengers feel safe – in terms of both physically integrity and health – when travelling by plane. It is essential to recover the feeling that “travelling” is not a “dangerous” activity. Passengers should always perceive an airport as a safe environment. For this reason, some security controls are already in place and others are now under consideration; just to cite a few:

  • Raising public awareness, social distancing, obligatory use of masks, hand sanitisers, gloves, disinfection cabins, sterilisation robots, ozone or ultraviolet light disinfection, PCR tests, passenger temperature checks, mobile apps, immunity passports, contact-less check-in and boarding, changes in the criteria for airport terminal building design, monitoring the parameters of distance between people, natural ventilation in terminal buildings, air travel corridors between countries considered safe, etc.

It must not be forgotten that these protection measures affect not only passengers, but also everyone working at an airport.

Airport operators must intensify advertising to convey confidence and promote, as best they can, the idea that thanks to new controls, airports are “safe environments”.

Fourth: update strategic plans, aid the sector and eliminate “uncertainty”.

In these difficult times, companies must rework their strategic plans and revise their objectives according to new, updated prognosis, at least in the short to mid-term. Uncertainty is one of the primary problems in moments of crisis. The best maxim is: “we don’t know what will happen, but we know what to do in each moment”. And for this, it is essential to have a committee of qualified people who are capable of:

  • In the first place, defining and listing the possible scenarios or phases that could occur, depending on how the pandemic evolves, for example: Phase 0, Phase 1, Phase 2, etc.
  • Next, establishing clear, concise indicators that make it possible to identify which phase the pandemic is in at each moment. For example, in the case of a government, this could be the percentage of people infected, the number of hospital beds available etc. For companies in the aeronautics sector, this could be the number of tickets sold, the hiring volume, etc.
  • And finally, creating an action plan for each phase of the pandemic to ensure that it is clear, at every moment, which measures will be taken according to the circumstances.

Many governments and companies in the sector have done this. However, the problem lies in the last point, regarding which measures to take. The fact that some indicators are where they were at the start of the pandemic and yet, the protection measures now are different to those applied before, creates confusion and generated distrust because “we don’t know what will happen, but we don’t know what to do either”.

The air transport sector is interrelated with the tourist sector, among others; and therefore, it is essential for a country’s economy. Airlines are fundamental for a country’s development. In the current situation, the sector will need help, mainly liquidity injections in the short term. The goal is that no company falls by the wayside.

Fifth: cultivate optimism.

Despite the pandemic, very few people say they will never travel again. Some restrictive measures will be temporary. It could be a mistake to think that all measures should be permanent. Sooner rather than later, the virus will be defeated; there will be vaccines or effective means to fight it. Still, the experience should be a lesson for everyone. In similar situations in the future, the response must be faster and more efficient. However, this situation is exceptional. Perhaps it is true that the progress in means of transport justifies adopting precautionary measures, but situations such as the present are not so frequent, even though experience has shown that we must always be vigilant. Which is the last pandemic we can remember? Perhaps the one incorrectly known as the “Spanish” flu at the beginning of the 20th century. How long ago was that?

Finally, it’s necessary to do what it takes to defend the air transport sector. Airport controls that prevent the spread of the current – and future, similar – pandemics, should occur within a framework of total consensus with the rest of the transport sector, and even society as a whole.

It is no use for airports to take exceptional security measures (with the discomfort they create for passengers), while equivalent measures are not being taken in other arenas, such as buses, subways, football stadiums or recreational facilities. For example, if airport passengers were required by law to test for Coronavirus, shouldn’t bus, subway, train and restaurant customers do the same?

It could be true that, at the beginning, the airplane helped spread COVID19, but it has also been (and will be) an ally in the fight against the pandemic, transporting respirators and other medical equipment needed to combat the pandemic.

The virus has travelled by air, but vaccines will also travel by air, once we have them.


Travelling by plane


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