Regulators Grapple with Regional Differences in Covid-19 Effects

 - May 12, 2020, 1:54 PM

This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.

Global regulators acknowledge the importance of a harmonized approach to returning the air transport industry to some semblance of pre-Covid normalcy, but differences in national priorities and the relative level of the virus’s effect on different jurisdictions will create barriers to realizing that goal.

Appearing on a Flight Safety Foundation panel Tuesday to discuss regulators’ roles in facilitating and speeding an industry recovery, UK Civil Aviation Authority group director of safety and airspace regulation Rob Bishton cited his own country’s actions to impose a 14-day self-isolation requirement for incoming travelers as an example of how governments want to protect their domestic positions. Bishton added that Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on aviation as a “vector” for the transmission of the disease, creating still more challenges in terms of public confidence.

“This is a public confidence issue, and public confidence in aviation is still a massive challenge,” said Bishton. “Looking at the sort of confused and congested picture we have at the moment…the key thing is that a coordinated [effort] that initially is able to implement operational things that make sense to passengers and also to keep them safe…is quite key.”

The CAA official noted the UK hosts a higher proportion of international travelers than does the rest of Europe, for example, underscoring the importance of the confidence of passengers in health policies to any strong rebound in air traffic.  

“The vector, being aviation, for this virus means that the domestic policies at the moment are to protect UK citizens,” said Bishton. “And how does aviation, working with industry and government, across government departments…all manner of different departments, unlike any previous issue…how do we get to a point where we can convince everybody that aviation can manage this? That is the key challenge.”

Managing some level of coordination will require regulators to work together with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which drew praise from Bishton for its quick response to the crisis. ICAO’s effectiveness carries limits, however, as the virus has affected different regions to varying degrees.

Transport Canada’s director of civil aviation for Ontario, Joseph Szwalek, highlighted those differences, even as they apply to Canada’s various provinces. “With respect to the impact Covid has had on all parts of Canada, it’s different. Like in a big metropolis like the Toronto area, we’ve had a lot of Covid; in Montreal, we’ve had a lot of Covid,” explained Szwalek. “In our far north, it’s been minimal. When we’re looking at restarting everything, we’re going to be restarting differently in Canada alone, where Vancouver may start up sooner than Toronto or Montreal.”

Even measures as fundamental as social distancing might have to differ from country to country and between different models of aircraft, noted Tay Tiang Guan, deputy director-general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore. “I think the way to resolve the so-called differences is really to have an objective basis to determine whether the particular measure is necessary onboard an aircraft,” said Tay. “And that requires the regulators to do work together and to have a basis for deciding what is necessary for an aircraft. And it will have to be re-spaced depending on where you fly to and where you come from. So this is a very difficult question and it's not going to be easy to get some harmonization in a short time.”