The UK government last week became the latest to provide some clarity around how it plans to kick start international air travel ahead of the summer holiday season. With Britons banned from making all but essential trips since the start of the year, the industry has been desperate for some kind of guidance on what might be permitted and by when.
It came on 9 April with the announcement that a so-called traffic light system would be imposed, with countries ranked green, amber or red according to how well they have controlled the pandemic. Those travelling to green destinations will have to take a Covid-19 test on return; those returning from amber or red countries will have to quarantine. However, that list has not yet been published.
This is making some airlines unhappy. Leisure carrier Jet2 says it will delay restarting flights until 23 June, blaming a “frustrating” lack of clarity. The government says it will reveal how countries are being categorised in “two or three weeks”. But this could give operators just days to market flights before international travel is allowed to resume from 17 May at the earliest.
Elsewhere, moves are being made to open at least some international air routes. After the failure of a previous attempt to establish a travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand, quarantine-free travel across the Tasman Sea will now be permitted from 19 April. While both countries have seen a rise in domestic flights, strict quarantine rules have almost entirely killed international travel.
Other territories in the wider Asia-Pacific region have also been looking at whether bilateral agreements between countries with few Covid-19 cases are a solution in the short-term. They include Taiwan and the tiny Pacific nation of Palau (population 19,000), with China Airlines starting twice-weekly flights with strict capacity caps of 110 passengers.
Health passports have also been talked about as a way to get international air travel going, with passengers using them to prove their virus-free status before boarding. However, in the USA at least they remain controversial. A spokesperson for the Biden administration confirmed this week that they will not be federally mandated, citing the need to protect “Americans’ privacy and rights”.
This comes as US airline traffic continues to surge back towards 2019 levels. Low-cost airline Southwest this week recalled all its flight attendants who had taken voluntary furlough during the crisis. A total of 2,700 cabin crew will return to work on 1 June. Last week, Southwest recalled 209 pilots on voluntary leave, saying it was preparing for a bump in flights in the summer schedule.
Unemployment or lack of job security may have been the biggest concern for many pilots this past year, but diversity in the cockpit – or the lack of it – remains a pre-occupation for the industry. US pilots’ union ALPA has called on the US government to make it easier for under-represented groups such as women and minorities to access flight training.
It follows United Airlines committing to train 5,000 pilots in the next 10 years, half of whom will be women and people of colour. Although some commentators have accused United of “quota filling” and possibly lowering standards, the airline has insisted the move is all about opening pilot careers to talented individuals who might have traditionally found it hard to break into the industry.
Will some of these aspiring aviators end up piloting supersonic transports? President Biden thinks they might. In a press conference this week, he raised the possibility of faster-than-sound commercial flights within 10 years. Several start-up companies, including Aerion and Boom, are developing supersonic aircraft that they hope will be in service this decade.
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