By Jitender Bhargava
Aviation analysts and airlines were confident till only a few weeks ago that the industry would soon attain pre-Covid level of operations. The optimism wasn’t misplaced. It stemmed from key decisions like the lifting of restrictions for international travellers by the USA and several other countries in November 2021.
The Indian government too, decided in end-November, to allow resumption of scheduled commercial international passenger services to/from India effective 15 December, 2021, as per bilaterally agreed capacity entitlements – as were operated in the pre-Covid days. This new policy was to replace the limited flight operations that was hitherto being allowed under the specific air bubble agreements with different countries.
The optimism was, however, short lived. Even as air travel bookings were on the rise, flights were operating at near-full capacity, new flights were being launched came the discovery of a new Coronavirus variant – Omicron, in South Africa in end-November. The decision of UK and many European countries to promptly ban flights from Africa to check its spread through arriving passengers created panic even though the information available on the new mutant variant was sketchy and required detailed research to establish its severity. The panic was unfortunately also prematurely amplified by the media resulting in spooking stock markets worldwide.
Realising the adverse consequences of banning flights, as witnessed in March 2020 – then a necessity to control the spread of virtually unknown Coronavirus and lack of medical preparedness globally – the World Health Organisation (WHO), International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) swung into action in unison to control damage and allay unfounded fears of governments and people alike. It had a salutary effect in ensuring that the decision of some governments in banning flights did not snowball into a global phenomenon.
WHO described the Omicron variant as no worse than other coronavirus strains even though it was more transmissible. This hopeful assessment came in the wake of global concern which rapidly grew over the heavily mutated variant forcing several nations to reimpose border restrictions and raising the spectre of a return to economically punishing lockdowns similar to post-March 2020 period.
IATA followed suit. It called upon governments to follow WHO’s advice for immediately rescinding travel bans that were introduced in response to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus by some countries. To further convince the governments, it further advocated: “Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods. In addition, they can adversely impact global health efforts during a pandemic by dis-incentivising countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data.”
ICAO did not lag behind in ensuring that governments did not resort to banning of flights, often the first resort. It said: “We also commit to a multilayer risk management strategy for international civil aviation, which is adaptable, proportionate, non-discriminatory and guided by scientific evidence in close cooperation and coordination with the public health sector, with agreed practices harmonized to the greatest extent possible, for air travel purposes.”
IATA, while urging governments to reconsider all Omicron measures said that rushed decisions have created fear and uncertainty among travellers just as many are about to embark on year-end visits to family or hard-earned vacations.The Indian government decided to take a cautious approach without creating an upheaval for the aviation industry. It deferred the normalising of international travel to end of January from the earlier announced date of 15 December, 2021 but allowed existing flight operations to continue without any hindrance.
This was made possible by putting in place a robust mechanism for checking arriving passengers from certain affected countries, designated as risky. The countries included in the first list were UK, Brazil, Botswana, Mauritius, Zimbabwe, Hong Kong, South Africa, Bangladesh, China, New Zealand, Singapore and Israel. Since then the categorised risky countries are being constantly monitored for additions/deletions. This had the desired effect – flights continued to be operated and Omicron was effectively managed with India reporting only 50 odd cases in the first fortnight of December. None of the cases were fatal in India validating views expressed by the scientists that governments shouldn’t fear for the worst every time a new variant was discovered.
India domestic operations, however, suffered marginally in the first week of December as the Omicron induced panic spread. The recovery was equally rapid as the fear abated. Indian carriers operated 2828 flights, flying 3,88,252 passengers on 12 December 2021, the highest since Covid impacted aviation.
Equally applaudable were the provisions put in place for arriving passengers by airports. Passengers arriving from countries at risk had to give their swab sample at the airport on arrival besides having a negative RT-PCR test report before boarding the flight. If tested negative, home quarantine for 7 days; retest on 8th day were stipulated. In order to decongest the arrival area, swab tests were being collected before immigration so that passengers received their reports by the time they were ready to collect their baggage. Only those testing positive for Coronavirus were made to undergo institutional quarantine and their test reports subjected to further scrutiny for Omicron.
IATA’s Director General Willie Walsh rightly observed “After nearly two years with COVID-19 we know a lot about the virus and the inability of travel restrictions to control its spread”. As a country in the forefront for vaccinating its citizens, ensuring adequate checks for arriving passengers, India’s management of Omicron without affecting flights is worthy of emulation by several countries, who have mistakenly believed that banning of flights was the only way to manage the threat of Omicron. Castigating the governments which imposed knee jerk restrictions in complete contravention of advice from the WHO, Walsh lamented that the discovery of the Omicron variant induced instant amnesia on some governments.
If the aviation industry was saved from flight bans this time it was entirely due to the dreadful narrative of ‘Omicron as lethal’ being effectively countered by WHO, IATA and ICAO collectively and most governments heeding the advice offered. Coronavirus may mutate for more variants in the future but the industry now has a template to follow – flight ban is no solution, ensuring stringent checks at airports for those likely to have been infected is what can help control virus spread, howsoever, deadly it may be.