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Covid-19: The Way Forward for Air Transport

ICAO and other responsible Organizations should be wary of seemingly impracticable suggestions made so far such as keeping three out of every four seats in the aircraft vacant and enforced wearing of face masks on board (particularly on long flights).

by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne
Writing from Montreal

All countries need to review their strategies now
~ Dr. Michael J. Ryan, World Health Organization

Just a few days ago The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) published its Handbook for Civil Aviation Authorities (CAAs) on the Management of Aviation Safety Risks related to COVID-19. This document was developed by ICAO with the support of the aviation experts from ICAO’s Safety Management Panel (SMP) and was the first version with updates to follow that reflect new developments as the aviation community continues to “learn from the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic”.



The document, which is consistent with ICAO’s existing Safety Management Manual focuses on three areas: assessment and prioritization of risks based on collection and analysis of data; application of safety management principles to support risk-based decision-making; and management and monitoring of CAA approvals in light of the flexibility needed across the aviation system to continue safe operations. These three pronged approaches are based on what ICAO calls the three Cs: cooperation; communication; and collaboration.

On 13 May 2020 the European Commission published its own document: COVID-19:Guidelines on the progressive restoration of transport services and connectivity which says inter alia “it will be essential that aviation and health stakeholders communicate widely on the measures in place, as well as on how these measures mitigate the risks. The aviation sector should make sure that measures are highly visible, coordinated, and communicated to passengers at all times”.

The Commission has stated that it will develop a Protocol to ensure that ventilation, hospital grade air filtering and vertical airflow will be strengthened and contamination risks will be limited along the travel process (e.g. avoiding concentration of passengers, limiting interaction on board, exploring the most appropriate allocation of seats based on technical constraints, and prioritising electronic documents and means of payment). Furthermore the Protocol will call for the reduction of movement in the cabin and adequate management of passenger flows by provision of early arrival time at the airport; prioritising electronic/self-check-in; ensuring distancing and minimising contacts at baggage drop-offs, security and border control points, at boarding, and during baggage collection). It calls for accessible information on airport processes to be provided to passengers in advance of travel.

It is needless to say that both the ICAO and EC measures are proactive, timely and useful as guidance. However, unless it has already been done, ICAO should convene a meeting through its SMP (online of course) of experts from selected countries that showed much success in curbing the Covid-19 spread. For example South Korea, with 51 million people, had recorded only 144 deaths and Taiwan, with 21 million population had only 2 recorded deaths. Other successful countries were China and Singapore, not to mention Sri Lanka with 21.2 million people recording only 9 deaths as of 16 May this year. This could be the prelude to justification of the first limb of the ICAO Handbook: namely “assessment and prioritization of risks based on collection and analysis of data”.

The Handbook sagely suggests that civil aviation authorities should adopt effective communication practices that include the use of existing digital platforms already in place to urgently communicate information with other States, industry stakeholders and the public, not to mention traditional and less common means such as e-mails, video conferences, social media and websites with view to expeditiously advising industry of a possible outbreak and appropriate risk mitigation measures as well as provision of safety and regulatory services (i.e. surveillance activities); and key announcements and contact information.

Sensitizing and guiding the civil aviation authorities may not be enough. For its part ICAO should establish an extended focus on the ICAO regional and sub-regional offices as the “eyes and ears” of the Organization. A serious review by the ICAO Council in this context could result in consistent communication between ICAO and its regional representations on the possibility of infection in a country or region that could result in widespread infection through air transport. The emphasis could be on the incontrovertible fact that the Covid-19 global spread was due to population movement, the center of which is air transport.

ICAO and other responsible Organizations should be wary of seemingly impracticable suggestions made so far such as keeping three out of every four seats in the aircraft vacant and enforced wearing of face masks on board (particularly on long flights). Rather, the emphasis should be an increased reliance on artificial intelligence with applications that could home in on crowded routes and destinations or “hot spots” that air transport from an infected country serves and take immediate action in point to point travel. For example, when Covid-19 was discovered in Wuhan, the most served routes from Wuhan which were points in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan could have been immediately identified and States alerted to take necessary action. ICAO could cooperate with the associations representing airlines and airports to put in place artificial intelligence which are already in place.

There must also be serious consideration given to a good balance between privacy and health in terms of surveillance of passengers. Airports and airlines should cooperate with this approach by improving airport service quality and extending brand marketing from being just a promise to a closer relationship with their clients – the passengers. Performance should be with purpose and increased vigilance and knowledge must be acquired by managers from successful entities within or without aviation.

The new normal should be a change in mindset at a micro level of serving the passenger. When applications of artificial intelligence are applied they should be intrinsically linked to embracing online training for all categories of civil aviation including staff at airlines, airports, air navigation services providers and regulators. One of the most important measures as a start would be to emphasize the need for management empathy, for example when “hot spots” connecting an infected area are identified, a higher degree of service quality from the industry at both airports and airlines which should be in place globally, could be activated. The mindset in management should include the value proposition that within the parameters of service should come empathy. In other words, treat the passenger not in a commoditized way as a means to an end (exclusively from the perspective of the balance sheet) but as an end in itself, whose fears and concerns must be allayed through an assurance of understanding and visionary management. The second mindset principle should be based on information and the sharing of timely and useful information with the passenger particularly on the proactive measures the airport has taken to address possible infection. The passenger must be comfortable with the information provided. Also, the information must be clearly conveyed in comprehensible means.

Scientists have stated that we could be faced with future pandemics and the aviation sector must heed this warning seriously.

The author is an aviation consultant. He is former Senior Legal Officer at ICAO and currently teaches aviation law and policy at McGill University.

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