Since its beginning on December 31, 2019, COVID-19 has posed unprecedented challenges to the world, including the international air transport sector. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, airports have seen a 28.4% decline in global passenger traffic volumes for the first quarter of 2020, which is equivalent to a reduction of 612 million passengers in absolute terms. These volumes (domestic and international traffic) are expected to decrease by 50.4% for 2020 as compared to 2019 figures. The ICAO estimates that by the end of 2020, the COVID-19 impact on scheduled international passenger traffic could reach reductions of up to 71% of seat capacity and up to 1.5 billion passengers globally. Airlines and airports face a potential revenue loss of up to US$314 billion and US$100 billion, respectively, for 2020.
In response to the severe impact felt across the global civil aviation sector as a result of COVID-19, and the need for wide-ranging government and industry coordination to help reconnect the world, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) established the Council Aviation Recovery Task Force (CART) in April 2020 to identify and recommend strategic priorities and policies for States and industry operators. Since diseases such as COVID-19 pose a risk to the traveling public because they can be transmitted between humans, the task force aims to leverage all available government and industry data to provide solutions for sector-wide challenges and to address priorities to reboot the network for a post-COVID world.
In this context, in order to be more resilient and responsive for airlines and other aviation partners during the process, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council adopted a new COVID-19 report in June 2020 which aims to provide high-level guidance for governments and what certain industries need in order to begin restarting the international air transport system while recovering safely from COVID-19. The report is accompanied by ‘Take-Off’ Guidance for Air Travel through the COVID-19 Public Health Crisis, which proposes a phased approach to restarting aviation in the post-COVID-19 period and identifies a set of generally applicable risk-based measures. The new report and guidelines were produced by the Council’s Aviation Recovery Task Force (CART) and were developed through broad-based consultations by the ICAO with countries and regional organizations as well as with valuable advice from the World Health Organization and key aviation industry groups including the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Airports Council International (ACI World), the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO), and the International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations (ICCAIA).
Public health risk mitigation measures
The documents provide a framework for addressing the impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic on the global aviation transportation system. It includes mitigations needed to reduce the public health risk to air passengers and aviation workers while strengthening confidence among the traveling public, the global supply chain, and governments, thus assisting in accelerating demand for essential and non-essential air travel.
With help and guidance from the civil aviation community, the ICAO recommends a phased approach to enable the safe return to high-volume domestic and international air travel for passengers and cargo. The ICAO has introduced a core set of measures to form a baseline aviation health safety protocol to protect air passengers and aviation workers from COVID-19. The organization believes that these measures will enable the growth of global aviation as it recovers from the current pandemic.
However, the ICAO also warns that it is essential to recognize that each stage of the recovery phase will need a recalibration of these measures in support of the common objective, which is to safely enable air travel, to incorporate new public health measures into the aviation system, as well as to support economic recovery and growth. Through the COVID-19 report and Take-Off guidelines, the ICAO emphasizes that all the actors of global aviation should recognize the need to reduce public health risks while being sensitive to what is operationally feasible for airlines, airports, and other aviation interests which are all essential in the facilitation of a successful recovery in the forthcoming period.
The guidance outlines layers of measures to mitigate the risk of virus transmission during air travel and the risk of importation of COVID-19 via air travel. The suggested measures include physical distancing to the extent feasible, wearing of facemasks by passengers and crew, routine sanitation and disinfection of all areas where people might gather, health screening which could include pre- and post-flight self-declarations, contact tracing for all passengers and employees and potential testing when reliable systems become available.
Guidance for air travel through the COVID-19 public health crisis
In line with recommendations and guidance from public health authorities, CART Take-Off guidance includes a section on Public Health Risk Mitigation Measures that will reduce the risk of transmission of the COVID-19 virus during the travel process as well as four operational modules.
The guidelines are mostly centered on trying to maintain distance between people, making sure hand sanitizers, and that PPE is available and used when necessary, cleaning of equipment such as forklifts after use, educating staff on personal hygiene, document signing carried out with people’s own pens, and using digital documentation as much as possible. The guidelines also include advice for the cargo flight crew, stating that they should apply the same health and safety considerations as passenger flight crews.
The cargo guidelines which aim to get passenger operations back in the air are part of a more comprehensive program. While air cargo consignments don’t come into contact with the traveling public, the cargo acceptance and hand over process include interaction with non-airport employees. The Cargo Module addresses aviation public health, including physical distancing, personal sanitation, protective barriers, transfer to the ramp, loading and unloading, and other mitigation procedures. The cargo module covers road feeders to freight reception and pick-up, within the cargo facility, cargo facility to ramp, and aircraft loading.
The airport module contains specific guidance elements addressing airport terminal building cleaning, disinfecting, and hygiene; physical distancing, staff protection; access, check-in area, security screening, airside areas, gate installations, passenger transfer, disembarking, baggage claim and arrivals areas.
The aircraft module explains boarding processes, seat assignment processes, baggage, interaction on board, environmental control systems, food and beverage service, lavatory access, crew protection, management of sick passengers or crew members, and cleaning and disinfection of the flight deck, cabin, and cargo compartment.
The crew module contains recommendations addressing a crew member`s contact with a suspected or positive COVID-19 case, reporting for duty, dedicated end-to-end crew layover best practices, crew members experiencing COVID-19 symptoms during a layover, and positioning of the crew. The module includes guidance about the implementations of health screening methods and the mitigatory actions to ensure that all crew members required to layover or transit at an outstation are aware of the measures necessary to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19. According to the module, to promote safe and sustainable international air travel, a carefully coordinated global approach to the treatment of aircrews, consistent with recognized public health standards, is essential to alleviate burdens on critical transportation workers. These include screening, quarantine requirements, and immigration restrictions that apply to other travelers.
The CART’s report contains a detailed situational analysis and critical principles supported by a series of recommendations focused around objectives for public health, aviation safety and security, and aviation economic recovery. According to CART, the recommendations and guidelines will be continuously reviewed and updated based on the latest medical and operational advice and are intended to harmonize with, not replace, the COVID-19 recovery roadmaps currently established by States, Regions, or industry groups. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak, States, including government regulators, airports, airlines, aircraft manufacturers, and other stakeholders of the aviation ecosystem, developed a set of measures aimed at reducing health risks to air travelers, aviation workers, and the general public. These measures are designed to enable a consistent and predictable travel experience. They will also contribute to the efficient, safe, secure, and sustainable transport by air of an increasing number of passengers and cargo and minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission. The success of aviation`s recovery is best achieved with collective effort among stakeholders across regions and sectors. The implementation of these measures will facilitate and strengthen global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic