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How to monitor, support local airlines to stem covid-19

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The reality of the coronavirus pandemic is starring doubters in the face and raising panic across nations. But a more strategic and timely preventive medicine, in right doses, can halt the contagion. WOLE OYEBADE writes.

Nigeria yesterday recorded the 12th case of coronavirus disease. Eight share a common trend. From overseas. By air travel. In-between are the operating airlines that are potential risk, as well as the last hold area to possibly stem the dangerous spread.

Apparently coming too late to wisdom, the Federal Government on Wednesday banned all flights en route 13 endemic countries, with effects from today. This was after about 88 countries took decisive yet economically painful measures to stop the virus. More than half of them have not even seen an index case.

Travellers and air travel business are quite central in this rampage. But there is more to stopping a pandemic crisis than banning few foreign airlines from high-risk countries. People will move anyway and anyhow.

Hence, at local level especially one that already has 12 cases; the operating airlines can be a critical asset at curtailing the spread and should not be overlooked in this public health emergency.

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In fact, operators and stakeholders alike are unanimous that it is high time the Federal Government applied the right support mechanisms to enhance best practices in hygiene, thorough screening measures across the aviation value chain, and sustenance of local airline operations while the covid-19 impacts last.

Safety firstIndeed, the global distress could have been different without the high speed commercial flights crisscrossing the globe. With one and in a matter of weeks, the Chinese Hubei province virus has become a pandemic!

Declaring a no fly-zone or border closure is also as fatal. No economy can survive in self-isolation for long. But as it is, covid-19 is an unusual ailment and should be treated in uncommon ward.

Aviation lawyer and consultant, Segun Ajaguna, remarked that the world currently faces a major health and economic crises, and “aviation is the fall guy.”

“Airlines have to bear it stoically because safety of lives is the most critical. But aviation cannot afford to shut down completely because it is a major life wire of an economy and will play a very important part in national recovery.

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“With or without airplanes, people must move anyway. You cannot lockdown a city for too long. So, for me, the local airlines need to keep running, but should be closely monitored much more than we have done with Immigration and Port Health screening at our major airports. I am aware that the airlines have intensified control measures and the government through the regulatory should support them in this exercise,” Ajaguna said.

The airlines, drawn by enlightened self interest, said they had no choice than clean all interior surfaces harder than before, and carry extra hygiene supplies at least to assure travellers of their safety.

Not unusual on domestic flights these days are glove wearing crew, alcohol-based hand sanitiser, sani-com wipes, foaming handsoap, disinfectant wipes, mini-mops with a handle and trash pickup devices.

Safety Manager of Air Peace, the biggest carrier in Nigeria, Captain Godfrey Ogbogu, confirmed measures to protect both passengers and staffers in the organisation.

Ogbogu said all passengers of Air Peace are now subjected to a thorough hand sanitisation at the boarding gate, adding that the airline has introduced temperature checking for all passengers before boarding.

He noted that any passenger whose temperature reads above 38 degrees, are not allowed to board while a refund are issued. According to him: “We wish to state categorically that any passenger who fails to cooperate will be declined boarding on any of our flights”.

Assuring the passengers that these exercises would be seamlessly carried out, Ogbogu hinted that the passengers will not be inconvenienced in any way.

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He enjoined all passengers to cooperate with the airline to this end, as the World Health Organisation (WHO), has declared covid-19 a pandemic. He disclosed that the airline’s aircraft is extensively sanitised before flying each day.

“Air Peace is cooperating with the Federal Government in fighting the incidence of the pandemic. We use this opportunity to thank all our customers for making us their airline of choice; the safety of our passengers and workforce is our priority, and this we shall pursue vigorously,” Ogbogu said.

One good turn deserves another
Chairman of the Airlines Operators of Nigeria (AON), Capt. Nogie Meggison, also confirmed that the airlines were doing their best to sustain the safety trend within the local operations, but needed to be encouraged to sustain the tempo.

Meggison said deploring safety measures are most necessary but not cheap amid dwindling fortunes of aviation business. He called on the Ministry of Aviation to take a cue from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) by directing the various agencies under its supervision to immediately put in place and extend critical palliative measures to Nigerian airline operators in order to reduce the burden of colossal losses.

He recalled the CBN’s buffer interventions, including the N50 billion targeted credit facility to cushion the impact of the virus on businesses, adding that it would not be out of place to support the domestic airlines as well.

“Nigerian airlines are suffering heavily from the impact of the coronavirus as the passenger numbers have dropped drastically and our overheads remain the same on many fronts and even increasing significantly on other fronts. Like we all know Nigerian airlines trade in Naira but we do our business in Dollars and the Naira has come under pressure since the coronavirus pandemic.

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“The agencies should, therefore, help the airlines by immediately streamlining over 32 multiple charges given to airlines, which are mostly double billing. Government should also bear 100 per cent cost of disinfecting all aircraft for this period, provide thermal scanners, hand sanitisers, mobilise more manpower, and training of Port Health personnel at our local airports to encourage more people to travel.

“What we are asking for is not unprecedented. For instance, in the United Stated of America, airlines are seeking a $50 billion bailout. As part of its response, an Emergency Stimulus Package was passed by the US Senate and House and they reduced interest rates to 0.25 per cent. Also, the bill granted their airlines tax credit for their losses during the pandemic.

“Our government can do the same, therefore, by granting the above stated reliefs to Nigerian airlines as a way of assisting them during this very difficult time to recover from their losses,” Meggison said.

Why airlines are more at risk
Indeed, airlines are bleeding globally. It is a highly pressured business that has no margin for laxity. So, having a scheduled aircraft grounded and for too long can cost the operator dearly.

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Member of the Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative (ASRTI), Olumide Ohunayo, explained that airlines run on high capital aircraft leasing arrangements, routinely trained personnel, very huge overhead, and backup cash, all of which involve regular revenue schedule that don’t foresee major crisis like covid-19 pandemic.

“Legacy carriers also have large pension liabilities because they have always being there and have the tendency to have higher staff to aircraft ratio that is above average, among other liabilities. They often put service and nationalism before profitability. That is why they get hit very badly in bad times,” Ohunayo said.

It is, therefore, a little wonder that the Founder of Virgin Atlantic, Richard Branson, at the weekend turned to the British Government to seek £7.5 billion in credit facilities for the airline industry.

Air France-KLM airlines also took more strategic measures, drawing a revolving credit facility for a total amount of €1.1 billion and €665 million.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) had lately estimated the financial impact of covid-19, putting the loss at $113 billion. In the face of serial shutdown of air travel businesses, the body had warned governments to prepare for the broad economic consequences, and ready to respond to the financial frailty of airlines.”

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Right support for safety
The Chief Executive Officer of IATA, Alexander de Juniac said flight disruptions would create enormous cash-flow pressures for airlines. “We have already seen Flybe go under. And this latest blow could push others in the same direction. Airlines will need emergency measures to get through this crisis.

“Governments should be looking at all possible means to assist the industry through these extreme circumstances. Extending lines of credit, reducing infrastructure costs, lightening the tax burden are all measures that governments will need to explore. Air transport is vital, but without a lifeline from governments we will have a sectoral financial crisis piled on top of the public health emergency,” de Juniac said.

Ohunayo agreed that that the local airlines and the service providers need palliatives at this time, in the form of waivers, reduction in levies and taxes to help the industry stay afloat.

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“If other countries are doing it for their own, why not Nigeria? Though we don’t have public-own airlines, the private carriers should be supported to weather the storm. Arik has just stopped its flights on the West Coast. It will also affect Air Peace. With states banning gatherings, it will affect passenger traffic putting pressure on the airlines too,” he said.

Secretary General of the ASRTI, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd) added that both State and operators must be concerned about the onboard health of the passengers, as we have for onboard security in the aviation security.

Ojikutu urged them to enhance the screening of passenger at departure point with pre-boarding screening of all passengers.

“Passengers detected at the departure point to be positive must be disallowed from boarding and handed over to the responsible health services authority. There must be a primary cost for that. Government could give concessions on services at some airports particularly the not too viable airports. The support must not come in the form of the usual dolling non-recoverable monies to the private airlines,” he said.

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