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‘Vaccine passport becoming a must for international travels’

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Amid the outcry against vaccine passport requirements for international travellers, the Chairman of Airlines and Passengers’ Joint Committee (APJC) of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Bankole Bernard, has said that inoculation is no longer an option but a must for travellers. Bernard, who is also the Managing Director of Finchglow, said the best Nigerian government could do to keep pace is to raise awareness, liberalise vaccination and make PCR tests less expensive. He spoke with WOLE OYEBADE on sundry issues. Excerpts:

It has been about 18 months since COVID-19 struck the world and disrupted air travel. How well has the local authority handled the fallout?
I think our industry has gone through one of the toughest times in history. Unfortunately, the aviation sector is the most affected because air transportation makes global events happen. Notwithstanding, the pandemic provides an avenue to look back on how we have been doing things and chart a new way forward. The interesting part of this pandemic is that there is really nothing like pre-COVID era anymore, because we are never going back to the ‘normal world’. What we have is the ‘new normal’ that we would have to run with.

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That said, I must give a good commendation to the Nigerian government because God has granted them the wisdom to handle the pandemic relatively well. We don’t expect them to be perfect, but Nigeria has done very well. They only need to perfect what they have achieved, especially in terms of good publicity in encouraging people to get tested and take the vaccine. Second, the government is responsible for the welfare of the people and to do that is to make vaccines and testing readily available. It is not only when people want to travel that they should remember to get tested. Let it be that it lives in their consciousness as the proper thing to do. If these are done, then we would have been able to handle the pandemic very well.

One of the sore points of the pandemic disruption is the issue of multiple fake test results and attendant face-off between Nigeria and Emirates Airlines, one of our major stakeholders. Could it have been better handled?
I think we have gone beyond that. Unfortunately, when the government was putting safety measures in place, they did not pay attention to local factors and those that would want to cash in fraudulently. There is what we call risk assessment. The earlier we get the government to factor this in, in all interventions, the better for the system. For instance, COVID-19 test result is valid within 72 hours of travel, and someone wants to travel in less than 24 hours. Beg, borrow or steal, someone will offer him a test result, which ordinarily takes a while following the due process. That kind of window could have been shut with the risk assessment in view.

Another thing is that it will not cost us much to have a database where all these results and findings are lodged. Even if hackers can infiltrate it, we would have been able to streamline what they can do with it. Indeed, the government has to do more, especially when it has to do with public health in ensuring that the system is protected, yet very friendly to use.

Do you foresee vaccination becoming one of the main travel requirements?
It is fast becoming the condition and I will advise you to go and get your jabs. Forget all the negativity about vaccines. I have taken two shots and nothing has changed. We are talking about eradicating the deadly virus and the only way is to have as many people as possible vaccinated. The European community has already said that anyone coming to their region must be vaccinated. If not, ‘sorry, we will not let you in’. If the European carriers have agreed on that, it means that the Middle East carriers will soon follow them. The American carrier will be the next. It means that you that are left in Nigeria and other places will have to comply, because the world is a global village. IATA has already proposed one-passport, which readily has all necessary information and I think it is fantastic. There is a firm relation between travel and public health now, and we all have to respect it.

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I think that is one of the things that is causing the row between Nigeria and the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) government. Irrespective of what has happened, I believe the two governments need to have a roundtable and get it resolved rather than allow third parties to read meanings and take advantage of the vacuum. The relationship is mutually beneficial and this is the time to make it even stronger.

Is it not time we start having vaccination services and rapid tests at international airports, at least for authenticity?
More often than not, people compromise standards when the cost is high. The first thing to do is to ensure availability of tests and make the cost very cheap. Then people will not have the ground to exploit others. For instance, it costs about N50, 000 to do one test, and for a trip, you need at least four. I think it will be ideal to drop the price of testing to the barest minimum. In the United States, tests are free. They will even mail the kits to you to do it yourself and send it back to them. I think we have gotten to that point too. Also, they should make the vaccines readily available everywhere.

As the passenger traffic makes a rebound, there is a lot of pressure on travellers to pay a lot more. Is there any form of protection for consumers?
I will say that airfares have not gone up. This is a dollarized industry. But what has happened is that in the last few months, Naira has depreciated over and over again. Dollar was in the region of N250 when this government came in. Now, even the CBN rate is N410 to N415 at official offer. You can see the percentage of devaluation. It means that everything we do in aviation and consumption of foreign goods is affected by this situation. For instance, a ticket that sold for $1000 at N250/$ then still sells for $1000 but at N410/$ now. So, the fare did not increase but for our weaker Naira.

But there is what we call comparative advantage that can bring down prices of such things. When it comes to foreign and local airlines, demand outweighs supply. The reason is that overseas travel is all by air. Even local travels are now done by air because of the insecurity in the land. So, that has made patronage go up. It means that if we have a national carrier on ground, it will have a comparative advantage over all other airlines coming into our country. But a lot of critics are not looking at the (national carrier) venture from the advantage point of view. I think the focus should not be against a national carrier but on clear modality on how to make it work.

You still advocate a national carrier despite years of delays?
I still believe in the national carrier project because it will be difficult for our tourism to grow without one. I have heard a lot of people speak about domestic tourism, but how do you achieve that outside of aviation? We can only grow it by about 20 to 30 per cent, but foreigners tell the story of our domestic tourism better by coming to those locations. A national carrier is one of the main means of promoting tourism. And if we cannot sink our aviation into tourism, it will be difficult to achieve tourism goals. The government also needs to provide an enabling environment of transparency in all that they do.

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In the local sector, we are seeing a surge in new airlines during a pandemic. Does that indicate industry growth?
What has happened in the domestic market is a surge in demand and a number of airlines came in. That motivated some analysts to describe the sector as viable, though forgetting the aftermath of such businesses. Like, when the aircraft is due for maintenance, what happens? A lot of investors divert to aviation thinking it is so viable. They are not so wrong because a lot of people are travelling by air. But where else will they divert their money where the interest rate from the banks is nothing and the capital market is not growing? So, everyone is looking for a safe haven that will still give you a return on investment.

It has been 15 years of Finchglow. How has the journey been?
It is really not how long but how well. For me, what is worth doing at all is worth doing well and that is exactly what we have done at Finchglow. We believe in working hard, smart and ensuring that the sky is the starting point. In the last 15 years, the so-called travel agency that started in a small shop at Falomo Shopping Complex has given birth to five other companies within the aviation industry.

We have the Travel Den as a travel agency, FCM as a corporate travel management company, Finchglow as a consolidator within the industry, Finchglow Holiday that handles local and international tourism, and finally the Lagos Aviation Academy (LAA), to fill the knowledge gaps and produce professionals for the industry. It has not been easy but we are very grateful to God that gave us the enablement to be a major stakeholder in the industry. We are grateful for the opportunity and look forward to doing more in the off-stream sector of aviation.

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