Volume V - In collaboration with:
The connectivity provided by air transport stimulates economic growth, provides jobs and contributes to improved living standards and the eradication of poverty. During times of crisis, aviation is even more critical to ensure that critical goods and essential workers arrive where they are needed, when they are needed. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic response nearly 46,400 special cargo flights transported 1.5 million tonnes of cargo, mostly medical equipment to areas in need, while nearly 39,200 special repatriation flights took nearly 5.4 million citizens home after borders closed in March, according to figures from the Air Transport Action Group.
The operational and economic impact of COVID-19 on the aviation industry is unprecedented. The pandemic is causing a disruption across the whole aviation supply chain, affecting not only transportation but also sectors that depend on air transport in their distribution channels. The latest data from the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) estimates an annual decline in tourism between 60% and 80% when compared with 2019 figures. The share of world GDP spent on air transport is forecast to be halved in 2020, totalling $434 billion (0.5% of GDP) amidst widespread lockdowns around the globe. World trade is also forecast to fall by 13% in 2020. However, trade is expected to rebound in 2021. The decline in air traffic will not only have an economic impact but it could also roll back progress made in advancing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Comparison of passenger numbers and seat capacity (source: ICAO)
Several organizations have predicted scenarios for recovery of traffic based on when international borders will open and how travel restrictions will be eased. However, with the resurgence of positive COVID-19 reported in different countries and regions there remains uncertainty over how soon traffic will recover and whether it will be a gradual, U-shaped recovery, or if there will be V-shape spikes in traffic levels. The exact path (depth, length and shape) of recovery will depend upon various factors, such as; the duration of outbreak waves, government protocols, passenger confidence, and economic conditions (for organizations and individuals). IATA’s forecast for the rest of 2020 shows a slower growth to year end, with annual passenger traffic down 66% compared to 2019 (the previous estimate was for a 63% annual decline). The drop in forward bookings amid the ongoing uncertainty related to future travel schedules is creating challenges for anticipating the recovery tipping point. A rebound in economic activity will have a limited impact on passenger volumes unless the pandemic is contained. Reliable testing for passengers will be one of the crucial factors for growth in passenger volumes in the near term until a vaccine is available. The risk of compulsory quarantine at destination is one of the key deterrents to travel at the moment (according to IATA Passenger Survey) but pre-departure testing could give governments the confidence to remove or ease mandatory quarantines. Unless governments work together in line with the Council of the International Civil Aviation Association’s Aviation Recovery Task Force (CART), air travel will continue to experience slow recovery.
Another adverse impact of COVID-19 is on jobs. Up to 46 million jobs are at risk globally, which is more than half of the 87.7 million jobs supported by aviation in normal times, according to ATAG. Of the 11 million who work directly for the industry, 4.3 million jobs are at risk. Employment decisions that are being made to lessen the short to medium term economic impacts of COVID-19 may have long term effects with regards to system capacity. Prior to COVID-19 the industry was estimating a shortage in aviation skilled professionals, including pilots and air traffic controllers. If air traffic is not expected to recover to 2019 levels by 2024, and the aviation industry continues to bleed and lose expertise along the way, then there is a risk of lack of seamless operations during recovery phase.
Dire times call for advancements to ensure survivability. With the outbreak of COVID-19, demand soared for medical and personal protective equipment. Ventilators, face masks, gloves and disinfectants became scarce commodities. When space in the belly of passenger aircraft disappeared as thousands of aircraft were parked, airlines were innovative in finding additional cargo capacity. Some airlines and airports are exploring new ways to upgrade ‘paperless travel’ to ‘contactless travel’ in order to allow passengers to check in, drop their bags off and board their flight without coming in contact with another person or kiosk. Touchless biometrics, self-service, automation, and mobile devices and apps will have a crucial role to play in future air transportation services. Relying on data and information flow across the supply chain for decision making will ensure predictability in the overall system. Future work environments include humans and machines/systems working together with a redistribution of tasks and responsibilities.
As aviation responds to the immediate impacts of COVID-19, considerations need to be made for future recovery. Preparing the workforce for the recovery will be key in order to manage what is expected of the system and of the people managing it. Exploring how to use technology and automation to support humans in carrying out routine tasks was already on the horizon. The impact of COVID-19 on supply chains everywhere is motivating a fresh look of where, when and how digital applications and robotics should be introduced.
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Stay tuned for our next Up in the Air publication which will focus on re-calibrating capacity in the new operating environment of COVID-19.