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Airlines seek end to health paperwork, testing, facemask protocols

By Wole Oyebade
01 July 2022   |   3:53 am
Airline operators have called for the scrap of health paperwork, COVID-19 testing and facemask protocols as mandatory requirements for air travel.

Passengers at Lagos airport. PHOTO: AYODELE ADENIRAN

*Highlight pandemic lessons for air travel

Airline operators have called for the scrap of health paperwork, COVID-19 testing and facemask protocols as mandatory requirements for air travel.

The operators, on the eve of summer travels, said those guidelines had outlived their usefulness and now unnecessary impediments to travelling with ease.

Similarly, the airlines, under the aegis of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), have urged governments to learn critical lessons from the COVID-19 episode, in developing more effective response to pandemics without shutting borders on businesses.

Indeed, as summer travel goes full throttle this month, airlines are faced with multiple challenges of labour shortage, high fuel prices, flight cancellations and airport chaos due to travel guidelines that are as diverse as the countries.

Already, Canada, the United Kingdom, United States and about 36 countries have lifted COVID-19 testing requirements for international travellers arriving by plane. Arrivals no longer have to show evidence of a negative test to enter the country.

The operators complained that the restart of global connectivity had been made more challenging because governments continued to favour local solutions over global standards.

They said constant policy changes by governments left most of the industry little time to prepare for the ramp-up. International travellers can only see the global effort to manage the pandemic as illogical and poorly coordinated in the face of vastly different policy responses to a common problem.

IATA’s Deputy Director General, Conrad Clifford, said it was vital to restore public confidence in government’s handling of health crises and border restrictions.

“Much of the damage was caused not by fear of the virus, but fear of sudden and arbitrary border restrictions imposed by authorities. Understanding the significant lessons from the pandemic will be crucial to managing future health crises in a way that ensures borders should not have to close again,” Clifford said.

He noted that although most major restrictions, such as total border closures and quarantines, had been removed and the world is increasingly open, “governments are still making travel unnecessarily difficult. Restrictions such as complicated health paperwork, COVID testing, and mask wearing are still required for travel in some jurisdictions despite these requirements having been lifted in domestic life.

“The WHO Director General is on record stating, ‘there is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade. We call on all countries to implement decisions that are evidence-based and consistent.’ We support that advice,” Clifford said.

The operators also urged governments to balance health measures with economic and social impacts. Though the evidence for restrictions is unproven, the impacts of reduced air connectivity are clear. Politicians, therefore, must balance the economic and social benefits of air connectivity against the need for health-related travel restrictions.

In 2019, aviation supported nearly 40 million jobs worldwide and underpinned $3.5 trillion of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). And public understanding of the economic importance of air connectivity is high—92 per cent of travellers agree that air connectivity is “critical” for the economy as measured in the latest IATA passenger survey.

IATA’s DG, Willie Walsh, urged governments to listen to WHO’s advice on the need to keep borders open.

“And we are calling for independent research into the effectiveness of policies that balance health measures with the social and economic benefits of air connectivity, with a view to agreeing a set of global recommendations for handling future health crises,” Walsh said.

IATA said further that public confidence is adversely affected by arbitrary rule-making and poor or contradictory information. But throughout the pandemic, the rules and messaging around border restrictions were confusing and illogical.

For example, in January 2022 some 100,000 different measures affecting international travel were in place. Navigating this fragmented system of measures has been confusing for travellers and caused major operational complexities for operators.

The IATA passenger survey shows why it is important that governments adopt a consistent approach to travel rules. Some 59 per cent of people still report that ‘understanding the rules was a real challenge’, 57 per cent that ‘paperwork was a challenge to arrange’, and 56 per cent that ‘the travel experience was much less convenient.’

Rules on mask wearing on board are increasingly seen as unnecessary. A majority of passengers now believe that masking should be stopped altogether, or should not be required if it has been lifted for other environments such as offices.

“Already, 71 per cent of travellers believe that they should be traveling as they did before the pandemic. As the return to normal accelerates, we will be back to a world where our biggest concerns focus on the sustainable growth of aviation.

“But that does not mean that governments and industry should forget the lessons from this pandemic. There will be more global health threats. Applying the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic to future health crises is the best way to ensure that the sacrifices made by millions of people were not made in vain,” Walsh said.