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Explained: When will international air travel restart?

When will international flights start again? On what factors will the timing and the roadmap depend? What are the concepts of ‘bubbles’ and ‘air bridges’ being considered by global aviation regulators?

Written by Pranav Mukul , Anil Sasi , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Published: June 1, 2020 11:24:53 am
A woman uses a sanitising wipe on her seat on a Delta flight (AP Photo)

From lockdown in metro cities to restrictions imposed by various countries on the entry of foreigners, “several factors need to be addressed” for the resumption of international flights, according to Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, who took to Twitter to list out the concerns given the rise in demand for restarting overseas flight operations.

“Many international destinations are not allowing incoming passenger traffic, except for their own citizens or diplomats. Within India, most international flights operate from the metros where travellers arrive from neighbouring cities & states. Our metro cities were under various degrees of lockdown which are beginning to be lifted,” Puri said.

He added that as India moves towards the critical mass of 50-60% operation of domestic flights, the ability to resume international operations would also improve.

So, when will India allow regular International flights?

Hours after the Home Ministry announced fresh guidelines pertaining to the countrywide lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic, India’s aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) said the suspension of scheduled international commercial passenger flights would continue until midnight on June 30. “It is once again reiterated that foreign airlines shall be suitably informed about the opening of their operations to or from India in due course,” the circular issued by the DGCA said.

Domestic passenger flight services resumed in the country from May 25, two months after the announcement of the lockdown and suspension of all scheduled commercial passenger flights in India. International air travel shall remain suspended, the MHA order said, adding that a decision on when to resume it would be taken after an assessment of the situation.

But a decision on the timing might not be entirely India’s call — given that this depends mostly on the destination country’s assessment of India being safe, and consequent permissions that need to be issued to Indian carriers to fly to their airports.

And that is where India could be low down on the list, as Covid-19 cases in the country continue to rise — even as they have either peaked or are coming down in other geographies. The post-Covid resumption pattern could hinge entirely on the discretion of individual countries and their aviation regulators.

Also in Explained | Why risk of virus transmission in an aircraft is seen as low

Airport staff push trollies at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport after domestic flights resume operations (AP)

Have other countries allowed international flights?

A number of countries in Europe have announced the opening up of borders for intra-Europe travel June 15 onwards, which will enable air travel, including for leisure purposes.

Countries like Sweden, the UK, Ireland, The Netherlands, and Slovenia have opened borders to EU tourists, while those such as Germany, Hungary, Romania, and Finland have opened up partially.

Lufthansa has announced 3,600 weekly flights in June. Together with its group airlines SWISS and Eurowings, Lufthansa is likely to operate 70 overseas flights as well. However, the European Union is yet to take a call on whether it will reopen its external borders on June 15.

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In Asia, Qatar Airways has said it plans to grow its network back to over 50 destinations before mid-June, including resumption of services to Manila, Amman, and Nairobi. The Doha-based airline has also said that by the end of this month, it hopes to connect 80 destinations, including 23 in Europe, four in the Americas, 20 in the Middle East/Africa and 33 in the Asia-Pacific.

The Centre on May 25 allowed the resumption of domestic flights with one-third capacity. (Express photo/Nirmal Harindran)

Have any countries restricted Indian citizens from flying into their borders?

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has notified a list of airports located in affected areas with high risk of Covid-19 transmission. This list classifies all airports in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh as ones with high risk of transmission. The list is continuously updated by EASA after consultation with EASA member states, and is based on information from World Health Organisation (WHO), the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, and other “reputable public health institutes”.

This is one of the initial examples of aviation regulators segregating regions according to the rate of occurrence of Covid-19. EASA has said that the list of airports has been established to support airlines and airports to put in place “an extra layer of protection for the passengers and crew members”.

Also, in April, a study of 1,364 airports worldwide conducted by public health and environmental science specialists from Tel Aviv University, in partnership with a mathematician from the Oxford Mathematical Institute, suggested that if flights were to resume, many of the airports in India and China would pose the highest risk for the spread of the disease.

The study said that India’s population density and frequent domestic travel put it at a high risk for outbreaks from infected passengers arriving from within the country.

The study, which has not yet been certified by peer review, produced a model of the spread of Covid-19 using global air travel data for October after factoring in a broad resumption of flights across geographies.

And how would the opening up of international routes progress?

While the EASA does not explicitly advise member states to restrict flights from its list of high-risk airports, some countries have taken it upon themselves to do so. For example, Greece has said it would conduct coronavirus tests on visitors arriving from airports considered to be high-risk by EASA, when the country opens its airports to tourism traffic on June 15, according to a Reuters report. In case of a negative test report, the passenger will need to quarantine for seven days, while passengers testing positive for the virus will be quarantined under supervision for 14 days.

Even as quarantining and testing of passengers are measures that have universal appeal, there is already talk of “bubbles” or “air bridges” joining jurisdictions that have largely eliminated the virus, and trust in each other’s testing and case numbers.

According to The Economist, Australia and New Zealand could lead the way with a proposed “Covid-safe travel zone”, or the trans-Tasman bubble. Small countries in the Pacific including Fiji and the Cook Islands, which have kept the virus at bay, could join in, with the zone being expanded to other jurisdictions such as Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan.

Incidentally, Taiwan is working with Stanford University, as first reported by the Financial Times, to create a “safe-travel protocol”, under which some 500 “human guinea pigs” will travel from San Francisco to Taipei. Passengers will be tested before a preflight period of quarantine, and they will then be tested every two days in quarantine after they land. The aim is to find the shortest safe quarantine period for brief business trips, instead of the 14-day prescription in vogue currently.

For Indian travellers to fly abroad, a lot will depend on the trajectory of the pandemic in the country, and on how regulators — DGCA as well as international regulators — certify the opening of their flight operations to or from India in the coming months.

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