Flight Plan

Bon voyage, with bilateral air bubbles

Updated on: Jul 07, 2020

‘Travel corridors’ enable resumption of flights between select destinations and are a good way to restart services during Covid-19 times. Ashwini Phadnis reports

As the aviation industry worldwide struggles to get back on its feet even as the lockdown imposed due to Covid-19 is being eased, India too is looking at several options to get the flying public back. The latest that the Indian government is considering are bilateral bubbles with various countries, including the UK, the US, Germany and France.

According to SITA, a global technology partner for the air transport industry, “,‘Travel bubbles’, ‘travel corridors’ and ‘air bridges’ are terms that describe formal agreements between governments allowing travellers to bypass strict quarantine measures based on the countries they travel between. It’s a simple but elegant idea to help combat the likelihood of Covid-19 resurgence, in particular second waves sparked by passengers arriving from high-risk regions.”

India is not the only country that is mulling travel bubbles. The UK is considering establishing travel bubbles with Portugal; New Zealand and Australia are looking at working out a travel corridor to ensure safe travel without quarantine for travellers between the two countries.

Countries are giving thought to travel bubbles for different reasons. While India wants to cash in on the demand in countries like the US and the UK, Australia and New Zealand are looking at an air bubble to help their tourism industries by opening their borders to each other.

According to Nripendra Singh, Industry Principal, Aerospace, Defense & Security Practice, Frost & Sullivan, air bubbles can help boost economic activity. He also points out that international flights being operated by India right now are predominantly repatriation flights, so passenger confidence in flying can be built by having bilateral air corridors. But, he adds, till normalcy returns, passenger confidence will be lacking.

Media reports suggest that both New Zealand and Australia have managed to control the coronavirus but in case corona cases increase in Australia, New Zealand can look at the Pacific, as several leaders of Pacific countries have petitioned it to open its borders. Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, the Cook Islands and other micro-nations have not registered a single case of the virus through the pandemic and are hence looking at international travel opening up.

The start of these initiatives by governments around the globe could also marginally help in improving the financial position of the airline industry. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), in a report released on June 29, said that the latest numbers indicate that the possible Covid-19 impact on scheduled passenger traffic for the full year 2020, compared to baseline or business as usual or as originally planned, would be an overall reduction ranging from 43 per cent to 52 per cent of the seats offered by airlines, while there could be an overall reduction of 2,344 million to 2,978 million passengers and that airlines could report approximately $308 billion to $391 billion potential loss in gross operating revenues.

Not a new concept

Air bubbles or travel corridors are not new. Military historian Pushpinder Singh recalls that Berlin, the capital of Nazi Germany, was occupied by the Allied Forces after its surrender in World War II. While West Germany became part of the Western Alliance, East Germany was under the Soviet Union.

“Berlin was divided into four zones but in 1949, the Soviets blockaded the city, which could not be reached by land from the West. So, to sustain the residents and armed forces in West Berlin, the allies mounted a massive and sustained airlift along the designated international air corridors which were three in number, overflying East German territory. These were the internationally regulated airways for civil and military air traffic and the Soviets could not interdict the air forces and airlines flying to Berlin,” recounts Pushpinder Singh.

Nripendra Singh points out that India has signed similar agreements with Afghanistan and Central Asian countries in the past and there are also talks of developing a green corridor with Russia that will allow cargo and passenger movement.

Collaborative effort needed

However, experts stress that while having air bubbles may be a good short-term solution to get fliers back again after the coronavirus pandemic, air bubbles can work only if there are collaborations between governments, airports and airlines, as these will be placing trust in each other to ensure that the risks are managed effectively and real-time data is available to respond to issues with speed.

According to SITA, standards are important to ensure that all stakeholders work in the same way and data privacy is protected as companies will be handling sensitive information including, potentially, data about people’s health.

Word of caution

A word of caution about travel bubbles comes from the International Air Transport Association, (IATA), a trade association for world airlines representing over 250 global airlines. While welcoming the concept of travel bridges, Alexandre de Juniac, Director General and Chief Executive Officer, IATA, said a travel bubble is a good instrument to restart connections between two countries, locations or airports but should not be made permanent.

“The corridor or bubble should not remain permanent, otherwise it will be extremely difficult to manage different types of corridors and bubbles. The complexities will be enormous. When the situation comes back to normal it will be difficult to dismantle these corridors and exceptional measures will be needed to come back to the normal situation. So, we recommend temporary corridors as a good measure to restart,” said the IATA DG in a global media conference call.

Published on July 07, 2020
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