Op-Ed: Opening Up Global Air Travel—Safely

One of the indelible effects of the COVID-19 outbreak is the dramatic decrease in air travel. Now that parts of the world are starting to open back up, there is good reason for optimism that international air travelers will once again take to the skies. But given the complexities of global air travel, coordinated global leadership is needed to put the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle back together again. Next month’s G7 Summit presents the perfect opportunity for that discussion.

In 2020, about 2.7 billion fewer passengers took flights compared to 2019. For airlines with small profit margins, this hit felt like a death blow. Quickly recognizing they were stuck with a product for which there was little demand, the aviation industry pursued a layered approach that focused on keeping the plane clean and working with airports to ensure the area around the plane was clean too.

It is hard to argue with the science that it worked. One frequently-cited medical journal article noted that half of an aircraft’s air comes from outside the plane and the other half is almost entirely caught by high-quality filters. A Department of Defense study notes that the environmental control units for heating and cooling significantly reduces passengers’ exposure to certain airborne particles. Another shows that the multi-layered approach from “gate-to-gate” means the risk of COVID virus transmission between passengers is very low. As a result, only about 50 COVID cases are associated with air travel, out of an estimated 1.2 billion passengers, and a disproportionately low number of cases has been reported among airline workers.

Understandably, many travelers remain cautious and travel is still about 40 percent off pre-COVID levels. People may be concerned about the effectiveness of an airplane’s filtration system if the passenger in the next seat is sick and maskless. It is certainly conceivable that there are additional cases of passengers that contracted COVID on an airplane, without it being reported. And the multiple points of contact for passengers such as ticketing, security screening, and boarding via the jetway, not to mention local transportation and hotels, may seem daunting despite the significant safety efforts all throughout the airport ecosystem.

That is why clear, national-level strategies are so important. In the absence of guidance or direction from the Trump Administration, airlines put together their own safety protocols. While well-intended, their hodgepodge nature likely added to travelers’ anxiety. One of President Biden’s first official acts was to issue an Executive Order mandating masks be worn during travel, requiring a negative COVID test, and self-quarantines for international travelers. The aviation industry reacted very positively to the order.

With research showing that air travel is safe with the right protocols and national-level policies taking effect, the next step is to solve the global jigsaw puzzle. While the rights of the planet’s sovereign nations must be respected, a coordinated global approach is needed now. When the G7 meets in the United Kingdom in June, it should make opening up global air travel a priority discussion. While most attention is rightly focused on vaccinations, national governments need to agree on a set of consistent standards to ensure the safe and smooth resumption of global air travel.

Fortunately, the International Civil Aviation Organization worked with its 192 member countries and laid out a comprehensive blueprint with the steps they each need to take, including airport, airplane, crew, and cargo guidance. ICAO—an agency of the United Nations—quite literally brought the world together through its Council Aviation Recovery Taskforce (CART) to produce the guidance focusing not on industry needs, but on how best to protect the traveling public and the aviation workforce. Yet ICAO cannot mandate its guidance, and nor should it. Each country will have the ability to tailor its own unique approach, but each needs to adopt and adhere to the standards of reopening that ICAO, through its member nations, laid out.

For its part, the G7 needs to take the next step and have the discussion. By doing so, it will highlight what, if anything, still needs to be done and send a strong signal that a coordinated effort is the only way to ensure global air travel can resume—safely.

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