This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.
The British Business and General Aviation Association (BBGA) this week stepped up its efforts to secure an exemption for the industry from the UK’s 14-day quarantine requirement, which took effect June 8 for an initial three-week period. The association is trying to convince the government’s Home Office that an alternate compliance plan provides sufficient protection against increasing the risk Covid-19 infections from the low numbers of travelers arriving in the country on business aircraft.
In a June 4 letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel, BBGA’s newly formed business aviation recovery group outlined plans for minimizing public health risks through a so-called as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP) service. This consists of a detailed list of measures to be adopted by business aircraft operators and support companies. BBGA further said its proposed ALARP service could be used as a test for measures that airlines could subsequently adopt.
It would consist of the following elements:
- Ensuring passengers are free of the Covid-19 virus. At a minimum, passengers would be required to self-certify that they have no symptoms and have not been in contact with anyone suspected of having Covid-19 within the previous 14 days. Arrangements could be made for passengers to take an approved molecular test no earlier than four days before departure, resulting in the issue of a medical certificate to confirm a negative result that would release them from quarantine requirements. As an alternative, passengers with no symptoms who complete a health declaration could fly to the UK and undergo a molecular test on arrival.
- Demonstrating safe boarding of aircraft. FBOs to establish that they can facilitate departures and arrivals with necessary social-distancing arrangements, including the use of personal protective equipment.
- Assurance of safety onboard aircraft. Operators to establish that social distancing can be observed inside aircraft with minimal cabin air recirculation and a low risk of cross-infection. BBGA also maintains that since most business aircraft have maximum cabin altitudes of 4,000 feet they have relatively high humidity levels that reportedly reduce the risk of infection.
- Safety management protocols for flight crew. Operators would revise their safety management systems to assure that passengers would not be exposed to risk of infection from the crew during flights. Flight crew would be subject to regular molecular testing.
In a June 18 statement, BBGA said that this plan received “encouraging feedback from the Department for Transport (DfT), which is jointly responsible with the Home Office for enforcing the quarantine. Supporters reportedly included aviation minister Kelly Tolhurst, who had had to defend the policy in the face of strong criticism in Parliament, including from members of her own Conservative Party.
However, the Home Secretary ignored the request for an exemption and imposed the quarantine policy across all aviation sectors, as well as for other modes of transportation. BBGA expressed dissatisfaction that when it finally received a response from the Home Office on June 16, it came from a low-level clerk in the complaints department. The letter failed to even acknowledge the group’s proposals and simply referred it back to the existing government policy.
“This is an extremely disappointing outcome,” said BBGA chief executive Marc Bailey. “It is, once again, systematic neglect to listen to the private sector when it offers innovative solutions during the national crisis that will help save lives, retain jobs, and benefit the economy. The government’s failure to engage with our progressive plans takes us to a dangerous cliff edge.”
The UK has yet to state whether it intends to extend the quarantine requirement after the initial period ending on June 29. BBGA has argued that investors will not travel to the UK during the quarantine, reporting that only around 130 passengers are arriving on business aircraft each day.
Similar arguments have been made on behalf of the airline sector, with the International Air Transport Association this week repeating its demands for the quarantine to be lifted. This group surveyed European airline passengers and found that between 76 and 83 percent would not travel to the UK while the quarantine is in place.
BBGA further envisages that when antibody testing has received global acceptance in establishing that people who have recovered from the virus have immunity, a Covid-19 "passport" could be issued to establish the health status of travelers. It proposes that passengers intending to visit the country for 48 hours or less might only be required to present a certificate on arrival proving a negative result of testing conducted before departure. On this basis, the requirement for a repeat test on landing might be reserved for visits of up to seven days.
However, IATA this week expressed concerns over mandated virus testing of airline passengers. The association’s medical adviser, Dr. David Powell, said that the cost of each test, which he estimated at $150, was “not insignificant” and also raised concerns about false-negative rates. Based on the 99 percent accuracy rates for the proposed polymerase chain reaction test, an average of three passengers out of 300 on a widebody aircraft could be carrying the virus. IATA has called for the availability of tests that could give results within an hour and with less than a 1 percent false-negative rate.
The DfT established an Aviation Restart, Recovery, and Engagement group to consult with the UK industry. This group's first meeting, on June 4, was convened with the Home Office. According to aviation industry sources speaking to AIN on condition of anonymity, Home Secretary Priti Patel made clear she was resolved to press ahead with the quarantine and showed little willingness to consider industry counterproposals, including requests to establish so-called air bridges to allow travel to and from specific countries.
British Airways, EasyJet, and Ryanair all refused to attend this meeting to protest what they characterized as a refusal by Patel to consult with the industry before confirming the quarantine. Industry sources say that the DfT is somewhat sympathetic to their requests but that the Home Office and Public Health England carry more authority.
The BBGA has participated in meetings of the Aviation Restart, Recovery, and Engagement group. Not surprisingly, however, little priority has been given to addressing business aviation's situation, with much of the focus being on airline demands for air bridges and other arrangements for operations if the quarantine is lifted.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps, who has been regarded as an ally by the UK aviation sector, failed to appear in Parliament when the plight of the industry was debated on June 3. He sent Tolhurst to absorb protests from members of parliament who argued that the government’s inaction will result in severe financial consequences for the industry.
On June 10, the UK parliament’s transport committee published a report expressing strong concern over the impact of Covid-19 on the aviation industry. “Finding a proportionate way to steadily resume the number of flights while minimizing the spread of coronavirus must be a priority for the UK government,” members of parliament concluded.
The committee said that the quarantine requirement is not justified on health grounds and is damaging to the aviation sector. “We support a more targeted and nuanced border control policy that would allow people traveling from countries where the infection rate of Covid-19 is relatively low to enter the UK on a less restrictive basis,” the report concluded. Based on data from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, that would include all countries, with the exception of the U.S., Brazil, Russia, and India.
A DfT spokeswoman told AIN that the government is continuing, "to look at options to increase international travel, when it is safe to do so." The department said it is "exploring a range of options to increase travel," without confirming whether or not it is actively considering BBGA's proposals. It also considering plans for air bridges, or international travel corridors, as it calls them.