Irish aviation sector cannot afford to wait for Covid-19 vaccine rollout

If passengers follow protocols, they should not feel shame for travelling overseas by air

Ireland’s hugely successful tourism industry  plays a central economic role. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/Bloomberg

Ireland’s hugely successful tourism industry plays a central economic role. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/Bloomberg

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As Ireland seeks to emerge from the crisis brought about by Covid-19, and focus on how we will rebuild our economy, it is clear that the restoration of a meaningful level of international air travel will be critical both for the aviation sector and for the country’s connectivity with the rest of the world.

This is not just the view of Aer Lingus and the aviation sector. Last week, the Oireachtas Transport Committee called on the Government to implement a clear strategy to safely increase international travel in 2021. The concerns around air travel that emerged at the start of the Covid crisis are no longer justified and the narrative from Government needs to change to reflect this. We need to encourage consumer confidence with respect to air travel within the European Union based on the EU traffic lights rules-based system, and to third countries where bilateral arrangements are required.

This is, of course, in the interests of Aer Lingus but it is also in the economic interest of our country given that we have the greatest dependence on air travel as a means to support our economy and employment compared to any other country in the EU. Our island nation’s geographical position on the edge of western Europe has been central to the development of our economy and society as an open, connected country, one that looks outwards and seeks to make strong connections around the globe and, equally, warmly welcomes visitors to our shores. This has been fundamental to Ireland’s success for many years.

For example, 160,000 jobs and more than 100,000 indirect jobs are supported by US Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) alone. FDI contributed strongly to Ireland’s recovery from the fallout of the global financial crisis in 2008, and it has shown similar strength and resilience throughout the pandemic. However, the restoration and maintenance of air connectivity is critical to FDI.

In this regard, we also agree with the Oireachtas transport committee when it says that Government should engage bilaterally with the US and Canada with a view to lifting the entry ban on Irish citizens and establish an agreed testing protocol to avoid the need for restrictions on movement or quarantine from these countries.

Tourism industry

Ireland’s hugely successful tourism industry also plays a central economic role. In 2018, the estimated GDP contribution of inward tourism was €8.7 billion per annum, and the number of overseas tourists arriving by air was 8.8 million.

Last week, the European Centre for Disease Prevention & Control (ECDC) stated that air travel should not be considered high risk for spreading the virus and that air travellers account for less than 1 per cent of all detected Covid-19 cases and do not increase the rate of transmission. These statistics are mirrored by those of Ireland’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre within the HSE, which also found that number of imported cases account for less than 1 per cent.

Based on the latest scientific evidence and information, the ECDC’s conclusions reflect the fact that the prevalence of Covid-19 among travellers is lower than in the general population. In addition, the measures in place in aviation minimise the possibility of transmission during air travel.

As we look ahead to 2021, we are conscious of the role that aviation will play in supporting Irish economic recovery

Eurocontrol data for air traffic activity shows Ireland’s traffic is down by 75 per cent versus Europe, which is down by 58 per cent. Of all countries, Ireland cannot continue to send the message internationally that we are “closed for business”. We need to ensure that safe international travel in and out of Ireland is facilitated and that efforts are made to give confidence to our citizens to begin flying again.

Our economy cannot wait for widespread vaccination programmes to be rolled out. Affordable, faster and more scalable testing and the “European Traffic Light System” are the immediate enablers that are required to ensure safe travel.

Government has taken a first step by signing up to the European Traffic Light System, and we hope this will see more connectivity re-established over time. The arrival of testing at our airports is also a positive, bringing another element of clarity and confidence to those who wish to travel.

Testing

An urgent shift to a fast and affordable standard of testing is now required. We know from recent International Air Transport Association (IATA) research into consumer behaviour that 88 per cent of respondents were willing to be tested to facilitate travel but 83 per cent of respondents would not fly if they had to quarantine.

Over the past 20 years alone, the airline business has suffered from the aftermath of 9/11, the grounding of flights due to volcanic ash, and the economic impacts of the global financial crisis – events that have now been dwarfed by the scale and duration of the Covid crisis. Everyone in Aer Lingus has worked hard to ensure that we continued to carry our customers safely to their destinations, introducing many new health and safety measures to mitigate the risk of transmission of the virus on board our aircraft and as our customers move through airports.

As we look ahead to 2021, we are conscious of the role that aviation will play in supporting Irish economic recovery. The airline planning process needs lead time to plan our operations for next year. We have announced an ambitious flying schedule for summer 2021 but a broader effort is required to rebuild confidence about flying again.

Aer Lingus is taking all steps within its control to increase consumer confidence, and quite apart from our intense focus on health and safety, we have also greatly increased booking flexibility for our customers.

CSO data released last week found that 53.9 per cent respondents reported that they will fly before the end of 2021. Once the appropriate guidelines are followed, no one should feel any shame for travelling internationally. Government must now recognise it has a key role in influencing consumer confidence, and moreover, that a very significant increase in safe international travel is critically required to enable economic recovery in 2021.

Donal Moriarty is interim chief executive of Aer Lingus

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