When the coronavirus spread around the globe, almost all flights were cancelled and borders shut. Nowadays, many countries in Asia and Europe are easing lockdowns domestically, but restrictions on international travel remain mostly in place. Especially intercontinental air travel has been hit hard. Some airlines have ceased long-distance flights altogether, while others just offer a few services per week. As many countries still bar foreigners from entering, the few remaining flights are predominantly used to repatriate citizens stuck abroad.
Bans on intercontinental travel have not only created a humanitarian nightmare, they have also caused economic havoc in many countries around the world. With proper testing procedures and other protective measures, it should be possible to gradually restart long-distance flights, without endangering the lives of passengers and the population in the destination country. There are three main reasons, why we think that intercontinental service should be reinstalled.
Current restrictions cause human hardship and economic disaster
Travel bans are causing severe human suffering. Many people have been unable to rejoin their spouse, partner, parents, children or close friends. Others have lost their jobs, because they could not return in time after a vacation. And some saw their businesses decline, because they were not on-site to run them. A very large number of people are also forced to stay in a country, that they haven’t called home for many years.
At the same time millions of employees working in the hospitality or transportation sector have lost their jobs, as tourists were prevented from visiting their country. And many businesses and landlords have suffered severe losses, as expats or long-stay visitors have opted or were forced to leave the country.
General travel bans on foreigners are inappropriate or even xenophobic
By now the coronavirus has spread around the world and this process is irreversible. The virus knows no borders or nationalities. Even people in the most remote places on earth can be infected. Individuals are either positive, negative or immune. People who are positive and can transmit the disease, should not be allowed to travel. For all others, no restrictions should apply. Irrespectively, most countries still maintain general travel bans on foreigners.
Many governments don’t treat foreigners equally. Their representatives call some countries ‘safe’, while referring to others as ‘unsafe’. This really makes no sense. Data on infections and deaths is hardly reliable, as it depends on the intensity of contract tracing and testing, and is also subject to manipulation. In addition, even if a country has a low number of corona cases, there is always the risk of a second outbreak or a sudden explosive growth in the number of infections.
The EU has come up with another form of discrimination. Many EU countries are gradually opening their borders only to citizens from other EU countries. There is certainly no medical justification for this. On the contrary. When Austria plans to allow hundreds of thousands of Germans to arrive by car or train without any screening, this is certainly a lot more dangerous, than to allow incoming flights from Asia to Vienna, with passengers repeatedly tested as described below.
Existing bans on (selected) foreigners ignore medical facts and disregard the economic and social contributions, that many foreigners, especially expats, provide. As they are often reciprocal, they also restrict the right of own citizens to travel abroad. Prohibiting foreigners in general to enter the country, is at best anachronistic, at worst xenophobic.
Intercont flights can be operated safer than domestic and regional services
At the beginning of the crisis and even today, intercontinental travelling has contributed to the rapid spread of the Wuhan virus. This is hardly a surprise. Passengers were allowed to get on the plane without any health check, or just a temperature scan, which is ineffective with people who are asymptomatic carriers of the virus.
Even today there is no general disease prevention standard for intercontinental flights. At some airports there are pre-flight temperature screenings, at others there is no check at all. A few airlines are requiring their cabin crew to wear hazmat suits and their passengers to wear face masks, others have no requirements even for flight attendants. The few passengers that are allowed to fly at all, can have a very different experience on connection flights, ranging from “Nothing has really changed” to “You are in a high-security biolab”.
Immigration procedures also differ greatly. At best you just get a pamphlet telling you to be careful, at worst you have to go through a bureaucratic and time-consuming nightmare. Before boarding you might have to provide a ‘safe-to-fly’ medical certificate, a ‘flight permit’ issued by the embassy of the destination country at your country of departure, and perhaps other legal documents. Upon arrival you are required to undergo a mandatory coronavirus test, before being sent into 14-day quarantine in government provided barracks, even if your test is negative.
The lack of a common standard procedures in shocking. There are plenty of international organizations that could propose and implement such a standard, such as the United Nations (UN), the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the Airport Council international (ACI). But instead of coming up with meaningful proposals, they prefer to issue lengthy documents, that are lacking in substance and direction.
The guidance Savely Restarting Aviation issued jointly by IATA and ACI on May 13 is a case in point. Despite superficially covering many topics, it is devoid of any clear and applicable recommendation. For instance, it demands that “all measures should be outcome based, supported by scientific evidence and a robust fact-based risk assessment” and “aimed at minimizing the risk of transmission … through a layered approach.”
In order to restart intercontinental services, we need to have a common standard at least for certain regions, e.g. the EU and ASEAN. Such a standard needs to incorporate a sufficient testing procedure before (and not after) the flight. We are aware that current corona tests are not fully reliable. Some problems are related to the test itself, others to the way it is administered. For instance, nasal swab tests are often not conducted by experienced medical personal, but by the tested person himself/herself. As this test can be painful if carried out correctly, it is no surprise that people, who carry out the test themselves, are tempted to cheat.
We are no medical doctors but would assume, that a testing procedure consisting of at least two tests could provide an acceptable level of accuracy. For instance, a first test could be carried out in an approved hospital a few days before the flight, and the final test on the day of departure at the airport. If necessary, an additional test could be added. Only the most accurate tests should be used and all tests would have to be carried out by specially trained medical personal. People with proven immunity due to a prior infection, should be exempted from the testing procedure.
Such a procedure is time-consuming for the passenger and therefore can’t be used for short-haul flights. But if you want to spend several weeks or months in a far-away country, you probably don’t mind spending a few hours going to a hospital, and arriving 6-9 hours early at the airport, to have the final test administered.
The procedure would not be 100% secure, but if some supporting measures are taken on the plane and in the destination country, the risks can be minimized. We would certainly feel a lot safer getting on a flight, where all passengers have repeatedly tested negative for the coronavirus, than boarding a crowded subway for a ten-minute intra-city ride.
All what is needed is a detailed proposal by one of the many international organizations, that is aligned with and supported by medical specialists. Unfortunately, all such entities prefer to lament about the situation, engage in internal politics, or focus on obtaining state bailouts, as is the case with most CEOs of airlines and airports.
We don’t know for sure, whether a safe procedure for intercontinental travel can be implemented immediately, or whether it will take a few weeks or months. But we are certain, that such a procedure would be safer, than allowing cross-border transport by car, bus or train without any medical checks.
By continuing current restrictions, governments are perpetuating human suffering and accelerating economic decline. We are not in favor of unrestricted free travel ignoring the threat of the coronavirus to individuals and whole economies. But intercontinental travel that follows clear guidelines to minimize risks, should be reinstalled as soon as medically justifiable.
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