News Update: Canadians will not fly without social distancing on board

According to The Canadian Press (July 7, 2020), seventy-two per cent of Canadians surveyed say they’re not comfortable flying since decisions by several airlines to relax their own in-flight physical-distancing requirements.

Eighty-five per cent of those surveyed also suggested that they’re not getting on planes any time soon, telling pollsters they have no plans to travel outside the country by the end of the year.

Courtesy flickr/wikicommons

Two days ago, the CBC carried the story of a man walking off a flight from Halifax to St John’s before takeoff after realizing many passengers on the flight would need to self-isolate upon arrival as they had come from all over Canada as required by health protocols. While everyone wore masks on the plane and adhered to physical distancing rules leading up to boarding, Mr Brian Power the passenger said: “But once you’re on a sold-out Dash 8, you’re sitting on each other’s laps.” He asked the flight attendants and gate staff about being in close contact with people who would need to self-isolate and said he was met with an “indifferent shrug.” So, he got off the plane.

Indeed, it does not make much sense to insist on social distancing pre-boarding but not board within a confined space over a longer period of time. It smacks of half-measures.

Airlines do away with social distancing on board

Do not expect the middle seat or for that matter the seat next to you to be empty when you fly.

Back when the coronavirus started to take its toll on air travel, airlines had given assurances that the middle seat would be kept vacant or that there would be a limit on the capacity as a way to social distance in order to reduce possible infection of the disease.

It was easy then when the load dropped to as low as 95 per cent for many carriers as there was never a squeeze on seats. But as travel creeps back, airlines are finding it does not make economic sense to forgo revenue to keep seats empty, never mind the risk of exposing their customers to the hazard.

Courtesy Getty Images

Air Canada and WestJet will end their seat distancing policy effective 1 July. They are sheltering behind the guidelines of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) which deems this to be unnecessary while recommending other measures such as the wearing of masks.

Similarly American Airlines announced that it will open booking to full capacity. The same goes with United Airlines, although it will allow passengers to rebook on another flight if the capacity exceeds 70 per cent. It is not a decision any traveller will be happy to make at the last minute.

Across the Atlantic, Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary has called social distancing in seating “just nonsense”.

It seems contradictory if airlines and airports would encourage social distancing before and after boarding that they should deem the need as unnecessary on board which is an even smaller confined space within which passengers may be held for an inordinately long period of time. The IATA recommendation in this respect therefore runs counter to the guidelines set by several governments.

Transport Canada,for example, has said: “Operators should develop guidance for spacing passengers aboard aircraft when possible to optimize social distancing.” But, of course, “where possible” may become not possible if carriers are selling to full capacity unless it becomes mandatory to limit the capacity.

In the United States, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has urged airlines to maintain at least one seat between all passengers and cap seating at 67 per cent of capacity on narrow-body planes.

What then is the priority, you may ask? It seems it is up to the passenger to take the chances, but surely it must be in the interest of the community that everyone abides by the same set of health rules. Besides, contradictory recommendations can only cause confusion.

…but not Delta Air Lines

Courtesy Getty Images

Delta Air Lines though will continue to limit the capacity on board to no more than 60 per cent. Chief executive Ed Bastian said: “We need to make certain that we take all precautions for our people, for our customers, reinforcing wearing masks, social distancing, keeping our plans only at 60 per cent full, making certain every seat next to a customer is open, so you have space on board, and doing everything we can to be cautious in the face of the spread.”

Mr Bastian added that Delta will continue with the policy post-September, although the cap may change after that.

Like Delta, presently Southwest Airlines and JetBlue are also blocking middle seats or restricting capacity. Ryanair’s rival easyJet is also doing likewise.

Air travellers should know what to or not expect when they book with a particular airline to avoid disappointment and be prepared if they have any concerns about the current situation of flying during a global pandemic.

News Update: Australia’s borders likely to stay closed to international travellers until 2021

If you are thinking of booking that ticket to Sydney…

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-australia-idUSKBN23O0F9

Should you book that heavily discounted air ticket to London or Tokyo now?

https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/should-you-book-heavily-discounted-air-ticket-london-or-tokyo-now

Is it time to travel?

Courtesy freepik.com

Some people may think it is no big deal even if airlines stop flying altogether. After all commercial aviation only came about at the beginning of the last century. But its advent has changed the way we live, our expectations, and how we connect with the rest of the world. While that is not going to happen, it is nonetheless preposterous to assume we could as easily return to the pre-flying days.

On the contrary, many people are probably looking forward to travelling by air again as some countries begin to relax international travel restrictions. However, it is still early days. Australia, for example, announced only last week that it will not be opening its borders anytime soon.

Indications are that any relaxation is likely to be country-specific rather than universal or industry-driven. This may be dependent on a nation’s level of infection or reciprocity between the countries concerned. In Europe, some countries are considering “air bridges” between two countries similar to the “air corridor” being looked at between Australia and New Zealand.

Conversely, a country may not open its doors to visitors from certain countries.

To be expected, there will be new sets of travel rules . Some of these may be deterrent in nature. The UK, for example, requires all arrivals (with some exceptions) to self-quarantine at a private residence for 14 days. It would be difficult for a non-resident visitor to find such accommodation, failing which the government will arrange it at the expense of the traveller. It is tantamount to asking people not to visit. In any case, would you if you had to stay locked up in a room for the most part of your vacation?

Some airlines have criticized the British ruling. Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary called it “nonsensical” and Virgin Atlantic said demand for seats would continue to be low. However, the UK government may not be concerned with the slow take up if that is what it takes to prevent a second wave of infections.

It is therefore critical you check out the 14-day rule before you plan to visit a country.

So much has already been said about the new normal in travel etiquette. The majority of airlines and airports will almost certainly make it mandatory for passengers to wear masks or some form of face covering as well as subject them to thermal temperature checks.

If you fly Emirates out of Dubai, you may be subject to a blood test via a pin prick of the finger. More elaborate testing at some airports will require arriving passengers to be held at the airport until the results are known.

Other regulations may require infection-free certification. This could be a simple declaration via an app ahead of arrival or formal medical documentary proof. Some authorities may also require visitors to register for tracing via an app in the event that an infection is subsequently detected.

The need for social distancing may mean marked lanes for traffic flow, designated areas for certain categories of passengers, and spaced positions in lines at service stations, immigration and boarding. Electronic check-in and self-baggage drop-off may become the norm.

All these are easy to comply with if you cannot resist that pent-up wanderlust and are prepared to put up with arriving at the airport much earlier than usual, slow processing and procedural inconveniences. Many of us would recall the temperature checks during the SARS outbreak some 17 years ago.

But is it really time to travel?

Foremost must be how convinced you are that it is safe to travel since the world is still afflicted by the disease although a number of countries are reporting declining levels of infection. There are also concerns of a second wave of infections against an uncertain timeline in developing a vaccine.

New cases have been reported in Wuhan and northeast China near the Russian border a week after the country lowered the risk level, and in South Korea as well following the relaxation of social distancing measures.

If you must travel, you have to have faith in airports and airlines doing all that is possible to keep the environment safe. Many airports have stepped up cleaning of surfaces prone to be touched by travellers. Airlines are also doing deep cleaning of the cabin more frequently and disinfecting tray tables and seat belts. Most aircraft are said to have robust filter systems whose quality of recirculated air is on par with that of hospitals.

You can forget about the romance of air travel as airlines cut back on in-flight services to minimize human contact and interaction. Amenities such as hot towels, blankets, headsets and magazines will no longer be provided on board, so bring your own. On long flights, pre-packaged meals are offered. For business class, it may be bento boxes with all courses served ensemble. It will be just the bare basics to get you from place to another.

Local restrictions at your destination may affect your holiday plans. Limits on numbers, for example, mean long waits at attractions or the difficulty of securing reservations at restaurants. It also means you may not be able to travel with family and friends beyond a certain group size. Certain places of interest may still be closed, and others may restrict entry to foreigners.

Finally, it is the airfare that can pull you or hold you back. Many airlines have begun selling tickets into the future at attractive fares including no fees for change. The fares may be competitive initially as airlines try to recoup their losses, but the high costs of operating low loads particularly if it has to keep the middle seat empty or limit the capacity as well additional costs in implementing new health and security protocols will sooner or later drive up the fare.

For the traveller, it all comes down to a gamble on uncertainty.

News Update: UK arrivals in France must self-isolate for 14 days

Courtesy AFP/Getty Images

From 8 June, as reported by the BBC, the French government has announced that people arriving in France from the UK will have to self-isolate for 14 day.

This follows the UK’s announcement of its quarantine plans for visitors to the UK from the same date. (See UK self-quarantine rule criticized, May 22, 2020)

France said it would impose reciprocal measures for any European country enforcing a quarantine. Hence travellers arriving in France from Spain by plane will also be asked to go into quarantine.

UK self-quarantine rule criticized

As countries ease up on reopening their economies, the question remains in doubt as to how soon the airline industry would return to normalcy. Any relaxation in travel restrictions that are in the offing seems to be deterrent in nature.

Courtesy Reuters

Most airports will require passengers to wear masks or some form of face covering and be subject to thermal temperature testing. These are easy to comply with. But when the United Kingdom announced that it would require any arrival from abroad with the exception of Ireland to self-quarantine at a private residence, that seems to tell non-residents not to visit.

Failure to comply would result in a fine of £1,000.

Questions have been raised about how non-residents may find accommodation with a private address. In its absence, the UK government has now clarified it would make the arrangement. This may well be academic as, indeed, why would someone visit a country if they had to stay quarantined for 14 days?

While many countries still require arrivals from abroad to self-quarantine, airlines with interest in the UK have criticized the proposal as a faux opening move that could only add to the woes of the industry which saw travel plummeting by as much as 99 per cent caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary was particularly critical, slamming the proposal as “nonsensical” and “unenforceable and un-policeable.” He said: “What we’re against are overly ineffective measures such as this nonsensical two-week isolation which applies if you’re not French or you;re not Irish.”

Mr O’Leary argued that the basis for exemption was not science based. The UK government has since backtracked on its decision for arrivals from France.

The Irish government warned Irish travellers that exemption to enter the UK does not mean they would be exempt from self-quarantine when returning to Ireland.

UK Airport Operators Association chief Karen Dee suggested instead a risk-based approach with agreements between countries on a “bridge” for safe travellers who would then not be subject to having to self-quarantine. New Zealand and Australia were already considering such an air corridor between the two countries.

The UK proposal may come into effect next month, but Virgin Atlantic is not optimistic. The airline said the ruling would “prevent flights from resuming” before August because there “simply won’t be sufficient demand”.

On the other hand, the UK government may not be all too concerned about the take-up being slow if that’s what it takes to guard against a second wave of coronavirus infections.

Ultimately it is a question of whether the country is ready to open up and the measured risks it is prepared to take with reasonable safeguards in place.

Singapore Airlines faces tough challenges ahead

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

The Singapore Airlines Group incurred a net loss of S$212 million (US$249 million) for the financial year ending 31 March 2020 compared to last year’s profit of S$683 million. This does not come as a surprise as SIA is not alone to be badly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic which has brought the aviation industry to almost a standstill.

While performance for the first nine months was strong, the last quarter wiped out the prospect of another profitable year in its 48-year history. Scheduled passenger capacity was reduced by 96 per cent because of global travel restrictions, and hedging losses added to the woes. ,

All three airlines – parent SIA, SilkAir and Scoot – in the Group were adversely affected by the pandemic. SIA made an operating profit of S$294, down 70.3 per cent from last year’s S$991 million. SilkAir posted an operating loss of S$112 million compared to last year’s S$15 million. And Scoot loss skyrocketed from last year’s S$15million to S$198 million.

During the year, SilkAir was also hit by the grounding of the B737 MAX 8 aircraft. Consequently the airline carried fewer passengers, down 9.4 per cent to 4.4 million from last year’s 4.9 million. Scoot’s load was flat comparing both years, and parent SIA’s volume was up marginally by 0.8 per cent to 20,9 million from last year’s 20.7 million.

Uncertainty continues to loom on the horizon even as some countries have announced plans to reopen their economies. There are concerns about the outbreak of a second wave of infection which means any relaxation will be measured and slow. This does not augur well for an airline like SIA which relies heavily on international traffic. If new protocols and travel preferences favour direct point-to-point traffic, it will not be good news for SIA.

SIA said it is making an “in-depth review of all aspects of operations to enable the Group to emerge stronger when air travel recovers”.

The pandemic is changing the game, and the challenges ahead demand bold and creative solutions.

News Update: Changi Airport closes Terminal 4

Picture: DL

From May 16, Changi Airport will suspend operations at Terminal 4 in view of its low usage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. (See Changi Airport upgrades while others take a break, May 11, 2020)

A small number of airlines which are still operating out of Temrinal 4 will be moved to either Terminal 1 or 3. The decision would enable the airport to save on running costs such as cleaning and utilities

This makes it the second of four terminals to be closed. Earlier on May 2, Terminal 2 was shut down to bring forward planned upgrading works. The new terminal is expected to reopen sme time in 2023 instead of 2024 as planned.

However, in the case of Terminal 4, the Changi Airport Group has said its reopening will be dependent on demand for air travel pickup and requirements of its airline clients which until its closure include Korean Air, Cathay Pacific and AirAsia.

Changi Airport upgrades while others take a break

Airlines are among the worst hit during the current Covid-19 pandemic. Many of them have reduced passenger capacity to a trickle, and others have suspended entire operations. This in turn takes a heavy toll on the business of airports.

According to the International Air Transport Association, global air travel has fallen by 90 per cent.

Hub airports in particular are reeling with excess capacity. Smaller airports risk losing their erstwhile status even after the pandemic. British Airways, for example, has announced it would not return to London Gatwick.

While it is still uncertain when normal airline operations will resume, experts are of the view that it will take at least up to 18 months. So what do airports do until then?

Courtesy Reuters

Singapore Changi Airport, voted the world’s best airport, for one is not taking it lying down. It operates out of four terminals with a total capacity of 80 million. In 2019, the airport served 68 million passengers. However, with traffic dipping by 90 per cent, the airport is maximising use of its resources and seizing the opportunity to upgrade its facilities.

Terminal 2 has been closed for upgrading works. But then Changi is known to be constantly upgrading even in good times which helps it maintain its top spot in the world rankings. In fact, there were already plans to carry out the works at the terminal. But the lockdown means this can be done without inconveniencing its customers. And instead of the planned completion in 2024, the new terminal will be ready for re-opening some time in 2023.

There is a possibility that Terminal 4 with a capacity of 16 million may also be closed. The main users include Cathay Pacific, Korean Air and AirAsia. Cathay which used to operate several daily flights has pared the number down to two or three weekly. The Hong Kong carrier has since moved back to Terminal 1 temporarily.

It may be said that Changi never rests, reminding one of the lines written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

The heights by great men reached and kept
were not attained by sudden flight,
but they, while their companions slept,
were toiling upward in the night.