Among the many industries battered by COVID-19, the airline industry is one of the hardest-hit industries of 2020.
According to the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) updated analysis released on 14 April 2020, an estimated USD 314 billion drop in airline passenger revenues in 2020 is expected, which is a whopping 55% plunge in comparison to 2019. Moreover, IATA also predicted that airline debt could rise to USD 550 billion by the end of 2020. With an already slowed down passenger demand in 2019 – which was, since 2009, the first year where passenger demand was below the long-term trend of around 5.5% annual growth – the pandemic acted as a final nail on the coffin with many international airlines declaring bankruptcy or collapsing. These include Flybe in the United Kingdom, Virgin Australia, Avianca in Colombia and Trans State Airlines in the United States of America.
However, despite all these challenges, airlines have been taking many steps to stay afloat and stay ethical. With a sharp decline in passenger demand and an incline in stagnant passenger planes, almost all airplanes have turned to transporting cargoes. For instance, after 36 years, American Airlines operated its first cargo-only flight using its grounded airplanes. Similarly, private jet companies like the ASL group and airplane manufacturers like Boeing have also used their planes to transport essential cargoes. Moreover, other airlines such as Lufthansa, United Airlines and Air Greenland have even turned to carrying essential daily commodities such as fruits, vegetables and so on to keep the global supply chain afloat.
Airlines have also used this opportunity to work on the long-due maintenance of their planes. One of these airlines, Etihad, is conducting its “biggest aircraft maintenance program in its history”. On an ethical level, airlines have also wavered cancellation and changed fees, increased the duration of their loyalty plans and have ensured that they will try their best to refund the passengers who had already paid for tickets of flights that were later cancelled due to the pandemic’s repercussions.
Despite all the problems they are facing, airlines have played a major role in helping in the fight against COVID-19 in many ways. A major way in which this has been done is through the transportation of required medical goods such as test-kits, PPEs, masks and so on by numerous flights such as Qatar, Alitalia, Ethiopian Airlines and Korean Air. Airline manufacturing companies like Airbus and Rolls-Royce have even started manufacturing ventilators and face shields. Moreover, some airlines such as Venezuelan airline Conviasa flew Cuban medical teams to Antigua and Barbuda and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Additionally, airlines have also helped by repatriating citizens from foreign countries such as that done by the Canadian airline Sunwing, which brought back nearly 60,000 Canadians over the course of a week.
Now, with many countries slowly easing lockdowns and starting air travel due to the essential need of it, many international airlines have started employing new techniques for dealing with the pandemic infection. Some of the ways in which they are doing this initially are by disinfecting their airplanes continuously, requiring passengers and staff to wear face masks, sanitizing counters and focusing on online check-ins. Emirates has even started using on-site rapid COVID-19 tests for passengers in coordination with Dubai Health Authority. Besides, companies that were previously overlooked such as Germ Falcon – a company that created UV-C systems to disinfect airplanes specifically – are now being taken seriously and are rapidly being employed to disinfect airplanes. Additionally, many airlines such as American, Southwest, United, Delta and other American airlines have started to keep their middle seats empty to increase social distancing measures. However, because such a policy is not very affordable for airlines due to already increasing losses, some airlines such as Frontier Airlines had adapted by allowing passengers to pay to keep their middle seats empty. Some airlines such as Air Asia have even introduced new cabin crew uniforms which include protective gear.
Lessons for Nepal
Looking at all that international airlines are doing to cope with COVID-19, Nepal has a long way to go. With an estimated 51% drop in passenger demand in comparison to 2019 in Nepal, Nepali airlines are just as hard-hit as any other international airlines. Along with passenger airlines, helicopter companies that were extremely sought after to view beautiful views of Everest have also been affected by COVID-19.
In light of these challenges and taking a cue from international airlines, more Nepali airlines should ideally move towards transporting cargoes and partner with the government to help with the effects of COVID-19 including the transportation of test kits, essential goods, medical teams and so on. Nepali airlines need to work with the government to repatriate all the Nepalis stranded abroad and to provide relief materials for those stranded at the border which we have seen to be a major humanitarian crisis in the past few days.
As lockdowns are not viable solutions anymore, slowly, the global airlines industry is resuming and Nepali airlines should be prepared to adapt to the new practices adopted within the airline industry. Just like all the international airlines, Nepali airlines need to work on state-of-the-art disinfectants, policies such as leaving the middle seat open and providing their staff with proper protective equipment. Besides, even when the lockdown eventually opens, people are most likely to focus on domestic travel which is what Nepali airlines also need to focus on. In the long run, when vaccines will have been created to fight COVID-19, airlines shall play a major role in distributing these vaccines. Nepali airlines – including helicopter services and private airlines – need to be ready for this. Moreover, airlines need to urge the government to help them out – just as many international governments are helping out their airlines – in any way the government can so that preferably no one gets laid off which would create a surge in unemployment. Although COVID-19 has majorly affected the airline industry, a lot can be done to fight this.
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