Before airliners return to the sky – Punch
Domestic airline operators will soon heave a sigh of relief as aviation authorities have fixed June 21 for the gradual resumption of flights. The country’s airspace was totally shut down to local and international travels in March as the Federal Government struggled to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has held the entire world by the scruff of the neck since early this year. It is a painful but an unavoidable global strategy, which has resulted in huge job losses and threat to the survival of some airlines. The challenge is how to balance safety with the need to reboot the economy.
The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority in a recent release by its Director-General, Musa Nuhu, said flight operations would be limited to five airports in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Owerri and Kano, but “others will be gradually added to the network after a review or assessment” of the initial easing. All the airlines have therefore, been given conditions they must fulfil in accordance with COVID-19 protocols before being finally cleared to operate. These include evidence of maintenance of their aircraft, which have been dormant for about three months; disinfecting the planes; sanitising of passengers; training of cabin crew and disinfecting airport halls.
Earlier, the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, said during one of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 briefings that airlines should carry between 50 and 70 per cent of their passenger capacity, ostensibly to create room for physical distancing inside aircraft. But this stance has been queried by one of the operators, which considers it out of sync with International Civil Aviation and International Airport Transport Association directives and lacks any scientific rationale. As air travel is the fastest and safest means of transport, the 23 active airlines will undoubtedly experience a surge in passenger traffic when they resume.
This is where the NCAA and other ancillary authorities should prove their mettle with strict demand of compliance with all regulations. With the aviation sector’s loss of N17 billion weekly (by Sirika’s evaluation), the tendency for some of the airlines to compromise with needless cost-saving devices that could undermine the health and safety of travellers cannot be ruled out. Once any airline gets the nod to fly, the NCAA in the main will be held responsible for any breaches. There should be no half measures.
Even before the airspace was closed in March, some federal lawmakers who returned from trips abroad failed to subject themselves to screening with the use of thermal temperature checks. It evoked public outrage, which culminated in a March 21 letter by the then Chief of Staff to the President, the late Abba Kyari, to the Speaker, House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, urging him to caution the errant lawmakers. In a decent society, nobody should be above the law. It is a civil canon that no person should be allowed to trifle with, no matter how highly placed, when the airlines begin to glide through the sky once more.
Given the deadly nature of COVID-19, which has no cure just yet, countries that have reopened their airspaces should painstakingly follow the protocols and periodically recalibrate their systems for observable lapses.
But the bigger picture is in the international airspace, likely to be reopened by Nigeria sooner than later. International flights were the principal vector of the virus across the globe. A few airlines have resumed international operations, limiting their routes based on the intensity of the pandemic and airspace regulations of destination countries. How Nigeria is going to cope as an important destination for 22 foreign carriers, amidst its many deficiencies in the digitisation of operations, small airport spaces and isolation centres and bed spaces is an issue of great concern.
Apprehensive of a second wave of the virus, Britain, the United Arab Emirates and a host of other countries have introduced mandatory 14-day quarantine of passengers to determine their COVID-19 status. For the UAE, the test is conducted by the Dubai Health Authorities within this period and another follow-up test before the traveller is released. This involves huge capital deployment in providing facilities. It is, therefore, a tough one for Nigeria to be fully prepared to open its international airspace.
Emirates Airlines is pointing the way forward for all airlines. In partnership with DHA, it carried out an on-the-spot test for its passengers on a Dubai-to-Tunisia flight on April 15. The blood test results came out in just 10 minutes. Austria has started testing passengers at Vienna International Airport, a process experts say is likely to be the new normal. It has provided protective barriers at each check-in-desk for safety re-assurance to passengers and their employees; physical distancing indicators for passengers on the ground inside the airport; banning of cabin baggage for flight – save briefcase – laptop and handbags and mandatory use of facemasks and hand gloves. In-flight service modification to minimise the risk of interaction and removal of magazines and other printed materials are among its new responses to COVID-19 flights demands.
In all of this, caution should be the watchword for a sector that has been badly hit. It is likely that no sudden crisis in recent history has unleashed greater devastation on any industry than the coronavirus blow to the aviation business. The British Airways, Lufthansa Group, Ryanair and Emirates, among others, have reduced their workforce or are contemplating doing so. IATA puts the expected revenue shortfall of the aviation sector at $314 billion. For Nigeria, the projections are N160 billion revenue and 22,200 job losses. In this scenario, hyper-vigilant hygienic practices and a strict industry regulation in all areas are imperative to avert health crises and avoidable air crashes.