Covid testing and health certificates must not be allowed to become norms for international travel, airlines say.
Willie Walsh, the new director general of the International Air Transport Association (Iata), said emergency measures to manage the crisis and facilitate travel risked becoming permanent unless airlines and consumers challenged them.
He criticised the extent and costs of testing regimes for travel, as new figures showed international air passenger numbers declined to just 11% of pre-pandemic levels in February.
The UK government requires three tests and a quarantine period for inbound travellers, and this week indicated that some tests would remain even for the safest, “green-light” countries once international leisure is permitted again, potentially from 17 May.
Walsh cited the ban on liquids brought in after the discovery of a planned terror attack on a transatlantic airliners 15 years ago, and said: “We see in our industry regulations being introduced for temporary problems that remain in place far too long, well beyond where they are necessary. When we saw the liquids ban introduced – for a credible security reason – it’s still in place today, despite the fact that there is technology available to airports enabling you to leave liquids in bags.”
He said he was confident such requirements would not be needed in the future, with solutions that mitigated the risks. “It is important that we as consumers don’t expect this to be a permanent measure for the industry and we need to challenge that.”
Walsh said the current UK system meant that “in a 12-day period you take three PCR tests that prove negative and you’ve in effect been committed to house arrest – we have to have a better system than that. We have to resist the temptation that this becomes the norm.”
He joined calls from bosses of airlines including easyJet and Virgin Atlantic this week to look at the costs of Covid tests, with PCR tests priced at more than many air fares. Walsh said: “We want to see other forms of testing that are equally reliable and significantly cheaper and faster and more comfortable for customers to undertake, embraced by governments.”
Walsh said he had personally taken five or six PCR tests in Europe and Singapore, and the requirement was “a major cost … The one that really shocked me was the amount of VAT I paid on the PCR test in the UK. I think that’s wrong. It’s clear that the cost of these tests are way too high for most people.”
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, said on Tuesday that the government would “see what we can do to make things as flexible and as affordable as possible”.
Meanwhile, Iata, the airline’s trade association, released figures showing international air travel was down almost 89% in February from pre-pandemic levels. Brian Pearce, the chief economist of Iata, said airlines were struggling with average load factors of just 40% of seat capacity, as well as increasing jet fuel prices – now back to more than $70 a barrel, after falling to just over $20 in 2020.
However, there were reasons for optimism, with routes opening up between low-risk and highly vaccinated countries, such as was agreed this week between Australia and New Zealand, Pearce said.
That raised the possibility of some of the most important and lucrative routes in aviation starting soon. Given levels of vaccination in the UK, US and Canada, “governments should be in a position to open transatlantic markets by the second half of this year”, he said.