An International Air Transport Association (IATA) survey has revealed that air travelers have become increasingly frustrated with the complex and confusing patchwork of Covid-19 travel restrictions, a sentiment shared by the airline trade body’s general director, Willie Walsh. “The situation is a mess. It’s stalling recovery [of air transport],” he commented at the IATA annual general meeting and world air transport summit in Boston.
Nearly nine in 10 people surveyed believe airline staff did a good job enforcing Covid-19 travel rules and implementing protective measures. But two-thirds of respondents found that understanding what rules applied to their trip was a real challenge, the travel experience was much less convenient, and arranging the required Covid-19 testing proved complicated. The survey, conducted in September in 11 leading travel markets, revealed that 73 percent of respondents indicated that their quality of life is suffering as a result of the Covid travel restrictions (up 6 percentage points from June 2021). Sixty-seven percent of respondents felt that most country borders should open now, up 12 percentage points from the June 2021 survey, and 64 percent felt that border closures are unnecessary and haven't effectively contained the virus (up 11 percentage points from June 2021).
The survey conclusions are crystal clear, according to Walsh. “People are increasingly frustrated with the Covid-19 travel restrictions…the message they are sending to governments is Covid-19 is not going to disappear, so we must establish a way to manage its risks while living and traveling normally.”
He urged governments worldwide to reassess the pandemic-related measures and move toward a risk-based approach taking into account medical-scientific evidence. “Medical science, not political science,” should drive travel restrictions, he insisted. “We are not dealing with the virus anymore, we are dealing with government restrictions,” he told reporters during a closing press briefing on October 5.
Airlines expressed understanding of governments’ decision to introduce travel restrictions in the early days of the pandemic as it bought them time to respond to a new and unknown health situation, but nearly two years later “that rationale no longer exists,” Walsh maintained. “Covid-19 is present in all parts of the world. Travel restrictions are a complex and confusing web of rules with very little consistency among them. And there is little evidence to support ongoing border restrictions and the economic havoc they create.”
In hindsight, Walsh said the industry “was too sympathetic” with governments. If or when a coronavirus-like pandemic happens again, the industry must react much quicker and prevent governments from introducing unnecessary measures. Past events like 9/11 show that “well-intentioned measures could remain in place long after they are necessary, or have become technologically or scientifically obsolete,” he said.
Walsh acknowledged that complete harmonization of international Covid travel rules appears unlikely, but some simple best practices that travelers can comprehend should be achievable, he asserted.
He called on states to commit to reducing the evolving complexity at the International Civil Aviation Organization High-Level Conference on Covid-19 late this month. The gathering must achieve “recognition that we must return to normal and the production of harmonized guidance on how to do so, including the sunsetting of measures,” Walsh concluded.