Digital health passports – a document for travelers to prove they are Covid-free following vaccination or a negative test result – are often touted as a key to unlocking aviation markets, giving confidence to governments and passengers alike that airline cabins are not vessels for the virus.
Libertarians hate the idea because such a system would discriminate against those who will not or cannot, for medical reasons, be vaccinated. Some in the industry are also sceptical about the efficacy of health passports, but for different reasons.
This week the bosses of Europe’s big two low-cost airlines – both desperate to see leisure travelers return to the skies again – weighed into the argument. Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary says the biggest problem will be getting the authorities and airlines to agree to an international standard.
His counterpart at easyJet, Johan Lundgren, believes that – while vaccination certificates can be “part of the mix” – so long as the virus is in control in certain jurisdictions, the priority should be to open travel with as few barriers as possible.
Lundgren admits that one of his fears will be that governments will continue putting blocks on travel even once infection numbers have fallen considerably. “We need to get back to a place where we can travel safely and fly again with no restrictions in place,” he says.
While the debate has been about vaccinated passengers, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency has been advising how long pilots who have just had the jab should stay off work. Its recommendation is at least 48 hours – extending to 72 hours for single-crew operations. The caution arises from uncertainty as to whether certain in-flight conditions at cruise altitudes – such as lower air pressure and the hypoxic environment – might make worse any side-effects from the vaccination.
Meanwhile, there was the usual mixed bag of optimism and pessimism this week among airlines reporting annual or issuing business updates, with several North American carriers responding positively to a robust traffic outlook in the region.
With the “strongest flight bookings since the start of the pandemic”, United Airlines plans from May to add 26 non-stop routes in the Midwest, using 70-seat jets operated by its regional partners. Other new flights will bring domestic and international schedules back to 58% and 46% of pre-crisis levels.
North of the border, WestJet intends to restore its full Canadian network of 19 cities by late June, and is confident of expanding its international services this summer, contingent on Ottawa lifting its quarantine rules for arriving passengers.
Airports too are more confident. Although it predicts a $94 billion revenue loss for the sector in 2021 over 2019 numbers, trade body ACI World expects a “surge” in travel demand during the second half. “Hopefully the darkest days are behind us in terms of overall passenger declines,” it says.
But the mood is darker elsewhere. Austrian Airlines plans further cuts to its fleet and headcount as the Lufthansa subsidiary warns earnings will fall short of targets set last year. Two more Airbus jets will be placed in storage until at least 2024, and 650 more full-time jobs will go.
Israel has had the most impressive vaccine roll-out in the world, but it has not helped its flag-carrier El-Al, whose financial crisis has deepened. And Kenya Airways this week reported its lowest passenger numbers since 1999, with 2020 revenues falling almost 60%.
There has been much talk about how aviation might look in the “new normal” post-Covid, and whether a reshaped industry will prompt technological breakthroughs, including in the area of the environment.
One of these could be electric-powered aircraft. Although there is still a debate as to whether battery power or hydrogen could be the true step-change in propulsion in the 2030s, a number of electric aircraft projects have made significant progress in recent weeks.
Finnair has said it is interested in acquiring up to 20 ES-19 aircraft, being developed by start-up Heart Aerospace. The 19-seat, 215nm-range type was unveiled by the Swedish company in 2019, with an intended in-service date of 2026.
Fellow Nordic carrier Wideroe is linking with Rolls-Royce and Tecnam to design an electric version of the Italian manufacturer’s P2012 piston commuter, while Spanish airline Air Nostrum is working with Dante Aeronautical to look at ways of developing electric regional air transport links in the country.
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