Sunday, June 20, 2021

TAKING ON THE TURBULENCE

by Bikram Vohra

There is much anticipation that once aircraft take off again, the worst will be over, and Marshall McLuhan’s global village will thrive once more. With 25,000 odd planes in service and at any given time as many as 8000 in the air peaking to 20,000 (Flightradar 24), commercial aviation with its cargo adjunct is going to be what stitches up the seams of the planet, or so we hope. In weeks the 102,000 flights a day worldwide have dwindled to a fraction. As much as 90% of civil aviation is in mothballs. And the 17,678 commercial airports that make up the network are largely spurned and derelict.

I wrote this exactly a year ago, and it would win no prizes for clairvoyance; a year later, commercial aviation continues to bleed extensively. The industry has supposedly lost over $370 billion and still rising. As much as 70% of the annual traffic projection is a wet noodle. Airports are losing so much money they face closure in multiples. They have dropped $120 billion and counting. By June, the media n airline will be bankrupt. Add to this the loss of over 600,000 jobs and the rampant uncertainty even today for those who hold on precariously to their positions.

Brave efforts to get people to fly are hampered by doubt, fear, a sense of despair, and uncertainty brought about by different strokes in different parts of the world. The ‘will I get back home’ sentiment is now paranoid.

Even though it might have been accused as a promotional catalyst in the spread of Covid 19 unless the virus is killed, the return of aviation is going to be a tough hill to climb even with the best of intentions and an abundance of caution.

The primary issue with international aviation is that it works on the weakest link theory. Safe, fourth-generation, state of the art airports can be a takeoff point for a landing at what is listed as an inadequate airport. This could be in terms of navigational aids, runways or taxiways or loading ramps or surface transportation and a dozen other facilities dealing with air safety, including outdated equipment in air traffic control. 

The same holds good for medical policing. With every country having their own protocols, the art of deception still plays a role. One nation’s tests may be a great deal more suspect than another’s. One passenger on a flight being found affected at the destination is a significant financial burden on the carrier. And sad to say, the system of checking is not failsafe. It cannot be, so there is a fall out.

This issue has been further exacerbated by the Covid 19 pandemic, which has all but crippled global aviation and placed many landing fields on the edge of the survival precipice. The freedoms that governed aviation are now severely restricted and will stay so. What is needed is cash ingestion, huge wads of it.

We did believe in the mid-back in the middle of 2020 that things would get better and grounded fleets would go through MRO rigours and happily back in the air.

Come towards the halfway mark in 2021, and ‘bleak’ is the only word that comes to mind as global aviation gasps for air. One of the hurdles is in the mindset of the world’s potential flyers who might still be uncertain of the protocols, and the other being the sheer physical discomfort of the procedure. The social distancing dictate calls for patience, discipline and caution, commodities not usually in abundance in air travel. For example, the sheer effort to check in on a twin-aisle flight would create a queue half a kilo-metre long. Not many airports have the luxury of that kind of space. At many mid-level airports, limited immigration desks would mean another snakelike lineup of people that at peak traffic hours would not be practical. Social distancing at Heathrow, for example, would be a cruel travesty where Immigration even through Fast Track calls for a shower and a fresh shirt.

On longer flights, the toilets would require true grit to use, and despite every effort, if it is true that Covid 19 survives on surfaces, there would be enough tissue used to choke the plumbing. It is not a laughing matter, but one in three passengers find the aircraft toilet claustrophobic, dirty and exhausting as an experience even at the best of times.

Even if the in flight service is managed with restrictions, deplaning in a passenger culture where standing up or releasing seat belts before the halt is part of the global conduct pattern, the exodus would need to be controlled with precision and military-like authority for it to be workable. Even if Immigration were cleared in an orderly manner, the collection of bags in the reunification process between passenger and luggage would be nigh impossible to occur with social distancing.

All in all, one can only hope that the desperate need for climb power for the industry to reach some altitude is made possible by massive co-operation from its passengers and a reaffirmation of faith inaviation per se.

So, okay, what then is the future? It isn’t easy to predict. If we assume that Covid will stay through the year and lockdowns, partial or total, will still be the order of the day, then international travel will stay essentially crippled.

It is not the grounded aircraft or the cost of hanging in there that is prohibitive, it is also the fear of catching Covid at airports, and in-flight that needs to be addressed. Indeed, for now, the pleasure of travelling by air has been replaced by a visceral fear factor, and that will take time to dissipate. So long as Covid spikes continue to happen, aviation will not be the same and will, for the most part, stay achore replete with uncertainty.

The industry has to start a collective morale-boosting sunburst of publicity for itself, showing that flying is Covid safe and getting there does not mean you will be stuck there, wherever there is. People have to be taken out of that funk.

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