Kamil Al-Awadhi, IATA Regional Vice President for Africa and the Middle East, says fragmented health rules continue to hamper the industry recovery.
Numbers tell the story in the Middle East. Airlines lost $7.9 billion in 2020—$73.19 for every pax they flew—and traffic remains low, dropping nearly 83% in April 2021 compared with pre-COVID levels. 1.7 million jobs and $105 billion in GDP are at risk. The region’s reliance on models offering international connectivity means the crisis continues to bite deeply.
The main challenge as the industry recovers is harmonization among regional governments. There have been differing approaches to the pandemic and consequently different attitudes to travel. The CART guidelines should be the framework for agreement on travel measures. There is no need for quarantine if travelers are fully vaccinated and PCR tests only need to be done on departure. The only reason to test on arrival is a lack of trust between governments. This has to stop if we are to get travel fully operational again.
But there is little point in these improvements unless the information is digitized in an agreed format. At some airports, assuming the current health protocols and a return to pre-COVID traffic levels, check-in would take up to six hours. Clearly, an absurdity. Some countries, such as Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan are making good progress, but travel is about connectivity and so the industry is only as strong as the weakest link. Other governments, regionally and throughout the world, must do their part.
Africa has similar challenges. Airlines lost $2 billion and some 4.5 million jobs have been lost or are at risk in a region that can ill afford such catastrophes.
PCR testing can cost up to $500 on the continent and will be a significant barrier to growth. Arguably, aviation connectivity has a particular importance to the vast area of Africa with other modes of transport, such as a road and rail network, limited. Yet the crisis has been devastating in this respect. From nearly 900 city-pairs on the continent in 2019 we are down to little more than 100. And we all considered 900 city-pairs to be far too few!
Consequently, the effects of the downturn are enormous. Economies are suffering, people are suffering. African problems are compounded by the lack of support from governments compared with other regions. Airlines received very little financial assistance, and many offers of aid simply added to airline debt. Not surprisingly, eight airlines have gone bankrupt and many more are in serious trouble.
The other consequence of airlines on the verge of bankruptcy is that it is too easy for safety to suffer. It is a testament to the airlines that they have worked so hard to maintain safety standards but obviously it is a far from perfect situation. IATA continues to work with AFRAA and other associations to ensure African airlines maintain international standards.
For the Middle East and Africa, aviation is not “nice-to-have.” It is absolutely essential to economic growth, job creation, and social cohesion. In the Middle East, aviation connectivity is central to many governments’ strategic visions. In Africa, it is a lifeline, bringing much-needed trade and humanitarian assistance at a speed that no other transport mode can match.
The industry must recover quickly. We need harmonization, mutual recognition of health measures, and digital solutions for those measures. We do not need the blunt tool of quarantine.