Covid-19: Fears as air travels resume

Nigerians fear that the resumption of air travels in the country following disruption occasioned by the coronavirus that has brought the global aviation industry to its knees. While flight resumption offers a breather for an industry gasping for air, there are worries regarding passenger safety and fare hike; BENJAMIN UMUTEME writes.

Nobody expected it when it came, sweeping away livelihoods, crippling businesses and leaving many barely managing to survive. When it was first reported in December 2019, billions around the world felt like other diseases before it, it would quickly go away, but it was not to be as it quickly spread from Wuhan in China to other parts of the world causing disruptions that had not been seen globally since the ‘Spanish flu’ of 1968.

The lockdown

By mid-March many countries were forced to enforce a lockdown as the numbers of infections and fatalities was continually on the rise. As at early April, death rates in the US, Italy, Spain, UK, and France had climbed into tens of thousands with the USA having the worst case. With industries and other businesses shutting down and economic activities gradually grinding to a halt, the federal government was left with no choice than to lockdown the economy also. Thus every sector of the economy became comatose.

In spite of the rise in cases and with no known cure yet, countries have started opening up their economies while a permanent cure, in the form of a vaccine, is being worked on. With over 10.83 million infections worldwide and 519,582 deaths, governments globally knew that without a known cure continuous lockdowns of its economies would spell doom. Even in Nigeria, the case is not different with close to 26,484 cases and 603 deaths, the federal government following the advice of the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19 started a gradual easing of the lockdown with the latest being the go ahead given to airlines among others, to resume full operations. 

The aviation industry

For the first time in history, about 90 per cent of the world’s citizens are restricted from travelling, either to return home or to destinations of choice. Without a doubt, the most affected in travel & tourism is the aviation industry.

An estimated 25 million aviation jobs and 100 million travel and tourism jobs across the globe are at risk. That is not all; the growth recorded in the industry in the last seven years would potentially be lost across the world.

And in Nigeria, most of the local airlines have either forced their workers to embark on unpaid leave, slashed salaries or dismissed others.  The federal government had proposed June 21 as resumption date for domestic flights in the country, but had to shift it forward.

According to a tweet by the special assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on digital/new media, Tolu Ogunlesi, via his Twitter handle, the date was not feasible because the industry was not ready. He said the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) said, “We will not approve the resumption of flight operations until we confirm we are able to start in a safe, secure, organised and efficient manner.

 “We will only give the go-ahead for resumption of domestic flights when we are ready. By the middle of next week we hope to submit a report through the Minister of Aviation to #PTFCovid-19, advising on a possible date for resumption.”

However, the PTF has to come out with guidelines for any airline that is ready to resume operations. According to the guidelines, the physical distancing measure currently being used to curtail the spread of the virus would apply to flight operations. Mandatory use of face masks, hand sanitisers are also part of the rules that must be observed by passengers before boarding any flight.

 That means aircraft can no longer carry their full passengers capacity. It has been suggested that aircraft should not carry more than seventy per cent of its capacity as it leaves the middle seats vacant.

Also, passengers are expected to get to the airport three hours before their departure time, to enable them to pass through all the necessary checks before boarding.   

An expert’s take

Speaking with Blueprint Weekend, aviation industry expert, Uche Usim, said the guidelines for the airline operators is a welcome development as it is part of plans to curb the spread of the virus.

“First of, the various safety measures put in place at our airports are a welcome development. They are in sync with the Covid-19 protocols articulated by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). On June 2, 2020, the ICAO Council President, Mr. Salvatore Sciacchitano, unveiled the Covid-19 report and guidelines that were produced by the Council’s Aviation Recovery Task Force (CART).

“They were developed through broad-based consultations with countries and regional organisations, and with important advice from the World Health Organisation and key aviation industry groups including the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Airports Council International (ACI World), the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO), and the International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations (ICCAIA).

“Being a global blueprint, Nigeria had to key into it and the result of that is the reconfiguration of the terminals with installation of interactive robots, markings, introduction of social distancing rules, mandatory use of face masks, hand sanitisers and other things as contained in the ICAO Covid-19 guidelines,” he said.

Ready to re-open

As domestic flights which have been suspended in Nigeria since March 2020 finally resume on July 8, 2020, the Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, has advised passengers to follow the safety guidelines and protocols put in place to ensure the airports do not become channels of infection for the coronavirus.

In a press statement issued on Wednesday by the director, public affairs, in the ministry, James Odaudu, flights will commence with the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja and the Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos. While Port Harcourt, Owerri, and Maiduguri airports will re-open to flights on July 11, while other airports across the country will join on July 15.

Local operator Dana Air stated that it was ready to resume flights having carried out a dry run at the Murtala Mohammed Airport 2 (MMA2) and shakedown flights from Lagos to Port Harcourt and back.

The airline’s media and communications manager, Kingsley Ezenwa, said it had to carry out the exercise to demonstrate its readiness to resume flights as soon as the airspace was re-opened. He added that All Personal Protective Equipment will be made available to staff, crew and passengers who might not come around with one.

He said, “‘Although all through the lockdown, we had our engineers on ground to ensure proper storage and steady maintenance of our fleet resumption at any time, and as part of our post-Covid resumptions plans, we had to get our team fully on ground on Wednesday for a dry run at the MMA2 terminal under the supervision of Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA). After a successful dry run, we conducted shakedown flights from Lagos to Port Harcourt with our newly acquired Boeing and MD aircraft in our fleet.

“All Recommended training, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for all staff have been updated and concluded.  All our aircraft are fitted with HEPA filters which filter 99.9 per cent of unwanted particles and viruses in the air. It also helps passengers breathe normally.  All aircraft in our fleet have also been disinfected as recommended by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and we have an optimised cleaning protocol to provide all-round peace of mind for our guests.

‘”We advise our guests to get to the airport at least two hours to their flights and also explore all our innovative online and self booking platforms available at MMA2.”

The national coordinator of PTF, Dr. Sanni Aliyu, had at the committee’s weekly briefing warned passengers “who make it a habit to always go late to the airport to be prepared to miss their flights.”    

‘The new normal’

Analysts say the new health guideline and protocols as prerequisite for air travels have come to stay for the time being pending when a cure is found for the virus. However, there are fears that this would lead to fare hike.

“With regards to the PTF advice that passengers arrive at the airport three hours to boarding, I see it as an inevitable development considering the peculiarities of the Nigerian system.  While I concede it may alter the flight schedule of the local airlines and shrink the number of flights per day, I must hasten to add that in dealing with a pestilence of this magnitude, nothing should be left to chance.

“The three hours is for the aircraft to be thoroughly disinfected or decontaminated, especially after a previous flight. The three hours will also allow flight crew (pilots and cabin attendants) to go through the pre-flight procedure like infrared body temperature check and sanitising of hands before boarding to conduct the onboard flight checks. For the passengers, everyone of them is expected to be screened outside the terminal before accessing it. More so, another screening will be carried out in the terminal and finally the airlines’ passenger screening. These have been estimated to take three hours maximum. Of course, there will be periodic reviews of the procedures as may be necessary.

“We can hope that the enforcement will be thorough and carried out with civility. Having dismissive and combative enforcers is dangerous in an airport environment because we do not want to see our terminals morph into rowdy motor parks where lawlessness reigns.  I expect these changes in rules and procedures to be accompanied by exhaustive sensitisation so that passengers have a fore knowledge of what to expect at the airports and what is also expected of them,” an analyst Uche said.

Explaining further, the managing director, Aero Contractor Airline, Captain Aso Sanusi, said travellers must trust that boarding a plane was safe and that they would be able to enter the destination country. The most immediate and perhaps most visible change the industry will witness is social distancing.

“Shortly before the total lockdown, we had implemented the social distancing policy and that took a lot of time. We witnessed a lot of delays because we had to ensure passengers keep safe distances at the point check-in in order to curb the spread of the virus. But physical distance policy in the aircraft will not be possible. That will not happen.”

“Passengers will have to be fit to travel, as the Yellow cards will be substituted for Covid-19 card. Passengers must arrive earlier than they used to at the airport and definitely expect more delay. The old normal turn around for local will increase from 30 minutes to over one hour (new normal) because aircraft will be sanitised every time the plane lands.”

According to him, there would also be panic at the airport or in an aircraft if certain things happened. For instance, if anyone sneezed, others would panic.

“We will have to work hard to psychologically educate the passengers that the aircraft is the safest place to be.”

In his contribution, the country manager, Nigeria & West Africa, Qatar Airways, Kennedy Chirchir, also agreed that the new normal of the industry would mean a total paradigm shift. He said the development would affect airline preparations, check-in preparations together with how agencies interacted with customers and airlines.

“We are moving to the digital space where physical interaction would be reduced drastically. Most of the operations will be on a digital platform. There will be more requirements in terms of the turnaround of aircraft. Before now, it takes about one hour for aircraft to turnaround, but now it may take as long as two or three hours because there would be stricter checks. These will happen, but will not stop people from travelling,” he said.

Passengers, operators groan

Even the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) last week warned travellers that it would collect 100 per cent service charge on each passenger. Many operators and travellers have questioned the move by FAAN saying it would further burden the air passengers who are already groaning under the economic disruption occasioned by the pandemic.

What this translates to is that airlines might lose revenue except they increase their fares to make up for those vacant seats. Before the coronavirus pandemic, most of the airlines were not breaking even because of the high cost of flight operations. The domestic airline operators have already given notice that fares will be increased in the post Covid-19 era.

Speaking about leaving the middle seats vacant in a recent aviation conference, the executive chairman of the leading Nigeria airline, Air Peace, Barrister Allen Onyema, said it would be economically suicidal for airlines to leave their middle seats vacant during flight operations.

He said: “Covid-19 is contracted anywhere and it could be at any environment. We, Air Peace, have devised a way to board and reduce contact a lot by first calling for the right window seat and after that is done and they are settled, we can call for the middle seats then.

“After that we can call the left window seat then you can call in the aisle seat at the right and then the aisle seat at the left. This will ensure interaction is minimal. If we leave the middle empty then the least ticket would be N100, 000, which will not be good for airline and passengers.”

An Abuja-based business woman, Mrs. Aruoriwo Ubochi, told this reporter that the proposed increase to airfare occasioned by the coronavirus will adversely impact businesses. Mrs. Ubochi noted that the implication of this is price increase for goods and services.

“When I begin to pay twice the amount I used to spend as transport fare to do my business it means I will have to pass the burden to the consumers. Thought, it is painful to further burden people financially in these difficult times, there is nothing I can do about that,” she said. 

 The aviation expert described the hike in Passenger Service Charge (PSC) payable by air travellers on local and an international service by 100 per cent is insensitive, ill-timed and scathing.

 The increase, he noted, which takes effect from August 1, is coming at a time when the flying public is still nursing the aches of a rampaging pestilence adding that It will discourage passengers because they will bear the brunt of the increase. 

 “If implemented, air travellers on local routes will now pay additional N2,000 aside the airfare from the initial N1,000 as PSC; while those on regional routes Senegal, Benin Republic and others, would pay $100 as PSC, up from $50. This also applies to passengers on long haul routes. In practical terms, if an airfare is N37, 000 for a one way domestic service, with the new PSC, it automatically jumps to N39, 000.

“I learnt the approval for the increase was given on August 3, 2017, and anchored on a plan to improve and upgrade the airports infrastructure. For me, it should be deferred to a later date when the economy stabilises and things are back to normal.”

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