By Wu Di and Yan Fawei
The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt one of the hardest blows to the aviation industry. According to the International Air Transport Association, passenger demand in 2020 slumped by a whopping 65.9 percent compared with 2019, making 2020 the worst year in recent aviation history.
For example, the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in the United States, which had the world’s largest passenger throughput of 110.53 million in 2019, saw its passenger number decline to 42.92 million that is, by 61.2 percent in 2020. In China, on the other hand, air passenger turnover in the first half of 2020 fell by 58 percent year-on-year, causing a loss of $74.07 billion to the aviation sector. However, thanks to China’s strict anti-pandemic measures, the domestic aviation industry bounced back in the second half limiting the decline to only 36.6 percent.
Since the pandemic is yet to be effectively contained worldwide, the aviation sector should take some necessary precautionary measures.
In the short term, the aviation sector including airlines and airports should continue with the strict anti-pandemic measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while according the highest priority to passengers’ health, not least because aviation market confidence is built on safety. The international airports in China have set a good example in this regard. The Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport overtook Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to become the world’s busiest airport in 2020 with 43.77 million passenger throughput thanks to its strict prevention and control measures.
After the outbreak of COVID-19, big international aviation hubs such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou implemented the strictest anti-pandemic measures including temperature measurements, health code checks, and quarantine and treatment of infected passengers. In addition, contactless services offered by the airports such as self-check in, e-boarding passes and the use of new technology including robots for disinfection and contactless elevator buttons reduced the risk of infection at the airports.
Also, while providing a relatively infection-free and safe environment, the aviation sector should take measures to reduce expenditure and increase income. As for reducing operational costs, airports should re-assess their capacity and close some facilities such as runways, aprons, terminal buildings and parking lots if necessary. They should also cut unnecessary capital investment.
And to increase its income, the aviation sector should consider promoting non-aviation businesses such as airline food companies offering takeout services. With large numbers of rooms unoccupied for months, hotels near airports should consider offering rooms on an hourly basis to cultivate a new market, while airports should consider transforming a part of their terminal buildings into supermarkets or tourist attractions to cover some of the operational costs, which would also boost the local economy. All these require cooperation among airports, shops, the local governments and the aviation authorities.
In the long run, since social distancing is likely to become a permanent norm, airports need to take social distancing into consideration and redesign procedures including security checks.
It is also important to maintain, if not increase, the value of existing assets. So aviation facilities should expedite the use of 5G technology and artificial intelligence, and set up more self-service stores to not only minimize the spread of the virus, but also increase efficiency.
Cooperation among different countries and regions is essential to effect the above changes. China has already set an example by largely containing the virus at home and resuming normal production and other economic activities, including airline services. The Chinese aviation industry not only staged a strong recovery in 2020 but also overtook the US in handling the highest number of passengers at an airport. In this regard, China’s aviation industry could become a reference for other countries’ aviation sectors.
Cooperation among countries and regions is essential to establish a common COVID-19 assessment norm and risk evaluation system for example, allowing relatively free passage to passengers from safe regions but restricting mobility of passengers from risky areas. These norms can be applied by using common health codes for different countries and regions.
–The Daily Mail-China Daily News Exchange Item