Travel Restrictions Raise Fear of More Painful Airline Recovery

 - May 15, 2020, 12:41 PM

Airlines worldwide battling for survival continue to face grave uncertainty about the terms under which they will be able to expand services and restore badly depleted revenue streams as most governments continue to enforce varying degrees of restriction on cross-border passenger movement. Now several states are considering quarantine requirements that would make travel extremely unattractive. That, along with load-factor-limiting measures such as calls to keep seats unoccupied have rendered international flying almost completely unviable for airlines.

In a series of proclamations starting on January 31 and running into March, U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally excluded all citizens of China, Iran, the European Union, and the UK from entering the U.S. The ban covers more than two billion people (just over one-quarter of the world’s population) and also applies to any non-U.S. citizens and travelers from other countries who had been to any of these territories in the previous 14 days.

Similarly, in mid-March, the European Commission (EC) imposed a ban on all visitors from outside the 27-nation bloc (apart from the UK). The EC has since extended the restriction until June 15 and on Friday it issued a policy document that indicated in very general terms the basis on which transportation services, including air travel, states might gradually restore.

The statement provided no details on specific requirements and did not confirm whether or not the travel ban will lift when it conducts the next review in the first week of June. It did call for EU member states to progressively start relaxing restrictions on movements across their borders and proposed that, globally, jurisdictions should coordinate changes and make them consistent under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization.

According to the EC, it will work with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and EASA to issue “in the coming weeks' technical operational guidelines to facilitate a coordinated approach and assist national aviation authorities, airlines, airports, and other aviation stakeholders” to start expanding air service. The statement mentioned the following anticipated measures as examples of the sort of requirements constituents could expect: hospital-grade air filtering, avoiding concentrations of passengers onboard aircraft and in airports, restrictions on cabin baggage, reducing passenger interaction action with flight attendants, and revised check-in procedures.

At the same time, most major Middle Eastern countries, along with China, India, Australia, and New Zealand, have banned, with some exceptions, non-citizens from entry. The duration of the bans vary, but in all cases, it remains unclear on what terms those countries will lift them.

Over the course of the past week, the UK and Spain have both signaled their intent to introduce new requirements for self-isolation of all arriving passengers for 14 days at a specified address, with heavy penalties for non-compliance. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) led industry protests against the moves, pointing to a survey showing that 69 percent of travelers would simply refuse to fly under these terms as evidence supporting the group’s contention that this would stifle any airline recovery.

In a May 13 press briefing, IATA said that the extent and complexity of all such restrictions—plus the threat of new challenges, such as blocking middle-aisle seats—will mean that international revenue passenger kilometers won’t recover to 2019 levels until 2024. It expects domestic flight activity to achieve that benchmark in 2022.

Lack of certainty over changes to the Covid-19 regulatory environment now seems to present one of the single biggest obstacles to recovery in the airline sector. The legal and political complexity surrounding the U.S. travel ban presents a prime example and airlines appear reticent to push hard for lifting restrictions, even though that would remove a major obstacle to rebuilding traffic volumes.

The ban on large groups of foreign travelers imposed by Presidential Proclamation is indefinite. Any recommendation to continue, modify or end the ban is supposed to come from Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, but so far no public acknowledgment of any such conversation with the White House has surfaced.

According to Bryan Del Monte, president of Minnesota-based marketing group The Aviation Agency and a former Pentagon official, the separate executive order imposing a 60-day suspension of all immigration into the U.S. currently in place through June 22 complicates prospects for the lifting of the ban. The declared purpose of the order centers on protecting jobs for existing U.S. citizens, but, because it also suspends application of the ESTA visa-waiver scheme, it complicates any prospect of lifting the wider ban on non-immigrant visitors to the U.S.

“This [April 22] Proclamation effectively bans all foreign nationals, except for those who are explicitly given authorization to enter the United States, from entering the U.S. under any visa authorization, including what we would call a tourist visa or temporary business visa,” explained Del Monte. “[It] effectively shuts down international travel into the U.S for anyone not holding a U.S. passport. The purpose of this Proclamation is not travel, but labor. Why do I say that? Because it also focused on resident aliens and those with potential authorizations to enter, which unlike other Proclamations, has to do with labor and not travel.”

At the same time, the U.S. State Department maintains a Level Four alert, essentially advising U.S. citizens against any foreign travel.

Confronted by such a Gordian knot of constraints on recovery for the air transportation sector, it might seem surprising that U.S. airlines have not, at least publicly, lobbied for relaxation. AIN approached the Airlines for America trade organization to ask about its position on the U.S. travel ban and other restrictions and received no response.

Del Monte said he is not surprised that U.S. carriers seem reluctant to make demands to relax restrictions. In his view, they likely feel such a position would be politically toxic in view of the taxpayer dollars received to keep them in business and due to perceived public resentment over issues such as blocks on consumer refunds for canceled or disrupted flights.

“I'm not aware of specific statements or actions by any carrier, whether it's in the U.S. or abroad, that says we’ve got to get rid of the restrictions, we’ve got to get back to business,” said Del Monte. “They’re not trying to essentially have the tail wag the dog on that, especially in [the U.S.]. They made their bed, they got their bailouts, they took our money. Now they have to do what we say…I do know that the airlines will probably start becoming more vocal about the challenges they face in light of demands of no one being in the middle seat. Well, airlines can't survive with 66 percent load factors. So there's going to be some tension there.”

Airlines might also want to avoid appearing to push for an aggressive lifting of Covid-19 restrictions while infection and death rates remain matters of great public concern. Efforts to lift lockdown rules in some states have clearly proved contentious and the air transportation industry might not want to take sides in such a political battleground.

The current situation appears to leave airlines trapped between their urgent desire to start a gradual return to normal levels of operation and their sense of powerlessness over circumstances beyond their control. Overall, the apparently open-ended uncertainty over potentially suffocating new requirements and restrictions make it near impossible for the industry to make any constructive flight plan for what is to come.