Learning to live with COVID: when that day comes we can then truly continue along the recovery path

21 May, 2021

We all share different views on life. When it comes to the delicate balancing act of managing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and attempting to return to some form of normalcy opinions remain polarised. Many advocate the continued closure of borders and tight restrictions to ensure that coronavirus is kept under control, others feel that we can return to normal, travel back to our offices, eat in restaurants, drink in pubs and bars and even discard the masks and social distancing requirements that have become standard practice over the past year.

In all honesty, a path somewhere down the middle will likely be the one to allow us to climb out of the crisis in a sensible and sustainable manner. But, one factor is certain - whether we like it or not we have to learn to live with COVID and threat it holds.

We already have successfully lived our lives under such similar threats and taken action to avoid transmission, being that medication for Malaria or being mindful of water quality in some locations.

SWISS CEO Dieter Vranckx said he expects mask requirements onboard aircraft "will probably be with us for a few more years", other hygiene and touchless processes introduced due to the pandemic will likely be permanent too, while measures such as the introduction of new boarding rules and the end of printed inflight magazines are also expected to continue long after the pandemic.

For the short-, medium- and even perhaps the long-term, we may need to adapt our practices to minimise potential exposure to infection, but that shouldn't impact our recovery journey and is a mere bump in the path rather than a huge mountain to clear.

For the travel and tourism industry such an attitude will be essential in helping it climb from the trough that it still occupies. The global vaccination drive is clearly the main channel in supporting this, but continued testing still plays an important role, as will reassuring consumers that once criteria has been reached the risks are much reduced. Once this is achieved confidence will rise and open the door into a new future.

One country that has taken a particularly strong stance against COVID transmission is Australia and its government has suggested that international borders may not be reopened until mid-2022. Many in the country have welcomed such a stance, but others feel that it is not a sustainable solution, most notably the airlines, hospitality providers and other industries that rely on international arrivals.

Virgin Australia's CEO Jayne Hrdlicka has called for a more relaxed stance noting that coronavirus eradication in Australia cannot be achieved and instead the opening of international borders should be linked directly to vaccination levels. "COVID will be part of the community, we will become sick with COVID and it won't put us in hospital, and it won't put people into dire straits because we'll have a vaccine," she said.

The Virgin Australia viewpoint is: "The question is not if, but when we will be sufficiently vaccinated to protect our people and our hospital system to open our international borders". The best solution it promotes is that "we must learn to live with COVID-19 in the community in a way that protects the health and safety of our people but also opens Australia up to the rest of the world".

Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce stated that at such time, following the effective completion of a national coronavirus vaccine rollout, "Australia can and should open up". Mr Joyce noted that "no one wants to lose the tremendous success we've had at managing COVID but rolling out the vaccine totally changes the equation", however he warned the "risk then flips to Australia being left behind when countries like the US and UK are getting back to normal".

"Australia has to put the same intensity into the vaccine rollout as we've put on lockdowns and restrictions, because only then will we have the confidence to open up," he added.

In the case of the aforementioned US and UK markets - ahead of many in terms of vaccination programmes - the CEOs of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, British Airways (BA), Virgin Atlantic and JetBlue Airways have jointly written to both the US Department of Transportation and the UK Department for Transport requesting a speed up of travel resumption between the countries. BA CEO Sean Doyle called on the UK and US governments to "get round the table and make that happen because the case is very compelling".

Latest schedule information from market intelligence specialist OAG for the week commencing 17-May-2021 shows "apparently the beginning of the recovery" for the UK air travel market and subsequently most of Europe. According to OAG data, UK airlines plan to operate 660,255 seats for the week, an increase of +72.9% week to week (+278,400 seats). The increase comes as the UK confirmed its 'Green List' of permitted international travel destinations.

Meanwhile, ForwardKeys has reported booking data from Israel, the US and the UK, where vaccination campaigns are particularly well advanced, have shown outbound flight bookings are climbing more steeply than elsewhere. In addition, two destinations - Greece and Iceland - which have announced that they will welcome vaccinated visitors this summer have seen inbound flight bookings pick up dramatically from the moment of their announcements.

There is more research suggesting that travel and tourism will bounce back quickly just as soon as the restrictive barriers that have enveloped the industry for more than a year start to be removed. This will all be facilitated by the return of airline flight networks. But the routes operated over the remainder of 2021 will look very different from those seen in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

It is something of a cliché to say the world is a different place in 2021. When it comes to air travel you only have to look at airport aprons and flight departure and arrival boards to see that is precisely the case.

New traffic light systems and travel corridors and bubbles that define mobility will dominate the summer travel environment, says CAPA - Centre for Aviation in a newly published report. The article 'Hitting the herd: traffic lights, bubbles or bust' said this will ultimately "be driven by the successful deployment of COVID-19 vaccination programmes in individual countries". The race for 'herd immunity' and that magic figure which means a large enough proportion of the population of an area is immune to the disease will be key to when and where airlines can fly.

There are already high levels of sentiment for domestic movement and increasing positivity for international travel; initially leisure and VFR-based, but over time, progressively also for business activity. However, the time and scale of the latter's recovery still remains unclear at this time and that is a big challenge for airlines as they plan for the future.

Until we come to terms with the fact that COVID will remain among us for some time, those are questions that will likely remain unanswered.