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Air Transport and the Travel Bubble

The travel bubble has not merely remained a buzzword but has evolved in popularity around the world. 

by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne in  Montreal 

Fear of harm ought to be proportional not merely to the gravity of the harm but also to the probability of the event ~ Blaise Pascal, Ars Cogitandi 

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) defines a “Travel Bubble” – a response to the inhibitive effect that the proliferating Covid-19 virus has wrought on air transport – as “ A State level agreement that enables international air travel between 2 (or more) countries based on a mutually agreed set of public health mitigation measures”.  The travel bubble is also known by different sobriquets as ‘travel corridors’ ; “corona corridors”; “corona bridges” or ‘airbridges’.  Essentially, the travel bubble pairs off origin and destination countries of a flight that are capable of equalizing infection risk between them, based primarily on infection rates in proportion to the population of the countries concerned; trends in infection rates (decreasing, stable, increasing) chronologically determined; transmission rates; similarity of quarantine measures imposed at entry if applicable; and the efficacy of overall public health response to the threat of spread of the virus in the countries participating in the travel bubble. 


The travel bubble will have to be implemented within the parameters prescribed in international treaty. Article 13 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation requires compliance with the laws and regulations of the landing State pertaining inter alia to quarantine requirements of that country.  Although the treaty does not explicitly devolve responsibility upon a specific entity in this context, it is implicit that the responsibility would rest with the airline. 

The travel bubble has not merely remained a buzzword but has evolved in popularity around the world.  There are travel bubbles being bounced back and forth between Singapore and Hong Kong as well as New Zealand; Australia and New Zealand;  Hong Kong with Japan and Thailand; Japan with Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and Taiwan (for residents); Indonesia with the United Arab Emirates;  and India with 13 countries.  It is also reported that officials of the United States and the United Kingdom are discussing possibilities of a transatlantic “air bridge” with a view to establishing air transport links between  New York and  London  that would obviate the usual 14-day quarantine. 

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)’s Council Aviation Recovery Task Force (CART) recommends inter alia that at the stage of initial increase of passenger travel, there should be relatively low passenger volumes, allowing airlines and airports to introduce aviation public health practices appropriate to the volume. CART envisions that there will be significant challenges as each stakeholder community requiring adaptation to both increased demand and the new operational challenges associated with risk mitigation and that health measures for travel required at airports will need to, at a minimum match those from other local modes of transport and infrastructure. CART also recommends that States ensure that health screening is conducted in accordance with the protocols of the relevant health authorities. Additionally, it is recommended that screening could include pre-flight and post-flight self-declarations, temperature measurement and visual observation conducted by health professionals. Such a screening, upon entry or exit, could identify potentially high-risk persons that may require additional examination prior to working or flying. An important recommendation is that the data collected, and information gathered could be used to effectively adopt a risk-based approach that would instill confidence in an otherwise apprehensive passenger.

The World Health Organization (WHO) , in an advisory issued on 30 July 2020 states inter alia “ The gradual lifting of travel measures (or temporary restrictions) should be based on a thorough risk assessment, taking into account country context, the local epidemiology and transmission patterns, the national health and social measures to control the outbreak, and the capacities of health systems in both departure and destination countries, including at points of entry.  Any subsequent measure must be proportionate to public health risks and should be adjusted based on a risk assessment, conducted regularly and systematically as the COVID-19 situation evolves and communicated regularly to the public”. 

It is incontrovertible that all three institutions – IATA, ICAO and WHO have stringently advocated a risk- based approach requiring prudent risk management.  In this context IATA has suggested three alternatives for the travel bubble: “."The Basic Travel Bubble (BTB) with the standard set of public health risk mitigation measures; The Limited Travel Bubble (LTB) with an additional requirement for a test within 24-48 hours of departure; The Extended Travel Bubble (ETB) with a requirement for a test within 24-48 hours of departure and a second test within 24-48 hours of arrival”. 

A key area in risk management is the compensatory element where airlines will have to take a close look at their insurance policies and policy renewals for coverage for infection of passengers whereas travelers would have to be circumspect of their travel insurance before they travel.  This would not be confined to the case of the travel bubble but would apply to air travel in general.  As for States, requirements for which are  the main focus of all three institutions, risk management should be driven by information technology and the speed in which information is exchanged between States that would enable screening as necessary at entry and departure points as well as contact tracing where necessary.  In this context Advance Passenger Information could prove to be an effective measure in the facilitation of clearance.  For example the Kyoto Convention (Convention On the Simplification And Harmonization Of Customs Procedure), in  Annex J at Article 5.5: “Recommended Practice 8 states: The Customs, in co-operation with other agencies and the trade, should seek to use internationally standardized advance passenger information, where available, in order to facilitate the Customs control of travelers and the clearance of goods carried by them”. 

In the ultimate analysis, the heavier burden will have to be borne by the airline which would have to take prudent measures to ensure that, not only are health requirements of a recipient State  met in terms of documentation, but that all reasonable measures are taken to determine that a passenger who boards the aircraft is not infected. This would include, as recommended by WHO: “checking for signs and symptoms (fever above 38°C, cough) and interviewing passengers about respiratory infection symptoms and any exposure to high-risk contacts, which can contribute to active case finding among sick travelers. Symptomatic travelers and identified contacts should be guided to seek or channeled to further medical examination, followed by testing for COVID- 19”.  There should also be access to digital databases for contact tracing and assisting States. 

Additionally, conditions on board the aircraft would have to conform to established requirements with regard to social distancing, service, sanitation et.al.  Health requirements of crew would also have to be seen to.  The travel bubble is yet another bit of proof that human ingenuity kicks in to remedy problems and face challenges.  However, communicable disease is one problem that should not be treated as being solved on a foolproof basis by the travel bubble.  The slightest human error could cause chaotic results in the spreading of the disease in gigantic proportions.  As Douglas Adams once said: “A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.”

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