On October 24th, 1945, an American Overseas Airlines DC-4, touched down at Shannon Airport, marking a milestone in Irish aviation – the first scheduled flight from the United States.
Seventy-five years later we have reached a different sort of milestone: no US airline, except for American Airlines, plans a single scheduled flight to Shannon or Cork in 2021. This will have a devastating impact on those regions.
It is imperative that the Government acts immediately to prepare Ireland for the reopening of the country. Rapid Covid-19 testing at our airports is essential to this. The livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Irish people depend on it.
We are in danger of becoming a flyover country
The connectivity to the world we achieved in recent decades resulted in a significant tourism industry and played a crucial role in Ireland becoming one of the most attractive destinations on the planet for foreign direct investment (FDI). Both of these are the result of decades of forward-thinking policies by successive governments to increase Ireland’s attractiveness as a place to visit and to do business.
Now, both are in jeopardy.
While 99 per cent of AerCap’s business is outside Ireland, as the largest owner and buyer of commercial aircraft in the world, we have a unique insight into how the rest of the world is managing aviation during the pandemic and is planning for the post-pandemic world. Other countries have either already restarted large-scale air travel, or are preparing to do so by having rapid testing capability at their airports.
In China, for instance, air traffic has already returned to 100 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, and this week alone more than over 17 million people in China will travel by air.
Covid-19 is not going away. We must have testing capability at our airports to facilitate a system of safe travel in and out of the country. If we continue on our current path of what is, in effect, a travel ban, without putting in place a future strategy to facilitate safe travel, we are in danger of becoming a flyover country, as we have been for most of our history.
Small countries must be agile in confronting both opportunities and threats, not slow and lumbering. Ireland is a small rock on the edge of Europe with a population the size of greater Manchester.
Worldwide, airlines are now removing from next year’s flight schedules destinations where they cannot be confident that the government will facilitate safe travel. The costs for an airline associated with flight cancellations and closing routes make such a risk prohibitive.
Rapid testing facilities enable passengers to take a test within a prescribed period (typically 48-72 hours) prior to travelling. If the test is negative, the passenger can avoid quarantine upon arrival at their destination.
Ireland's current policy stands in stark contrast to our European neighbours. Today, if you fly from Germany to Ireland you must quarantine for 14 days, despite the fact that Ireland's infection rate is more than three times that of Germany.
In contrast, even though Dublin is on Germany’s red list, Germany will permit travel from Dublin without a requirement to quarantine if you have tested negative for Covid-19 within 48 hours of departure. Like Ireland, Germany has had to endure significant hardships due to Covid-19, but the Germans recognise that they must adapt to living with coronavirus.
Ireland is the only country in Europe with immigration pre-clearance for flights to the United States
While we all hope for the rapid development and deployment of an effective vaccine, we cannot assume Covid-19 is going away anytime soon. We must therefore take steps now to be able to live with Covid-19 in a way that maintains our economy and relevance to the larger world, while continuing to protect our most vulnerable citizens.
In order to do this, we must harmonise our travel policies with those of our European neighbours, including quarantine and testing protocols. Ironically, an Irish company is currently building rapid testing capability for American Airlines, the largest airline in the world – but they are building it in the US, not in Ireland.
AerCap does business in 100 countries with every major airline in the world and we can clearly see that in 2021, airlines will either stop or significantly reduce their service to countries that lack the infrastructure or government policy to deal with international travel. Airlines are making these decisions today.
It took this country decades to build the level of global connectivity that we have, and that cannot be restarted overnight. Before Covid-19, you could fly directly from Ireland to 200 destinations in 43 countries around the world, including vital commercial links to both the east and west coasts of the United States as well as China. We are in serious danger of losing that connectivity, which would have a significant impact on tourism, domestic businesses large and small, as well as FDI.
Ireland is the only country in Europe with immigration pre-clearance for flights to the United States. If we can combine this advantage with the pre-flight Covid-19 testing currently being used in the US, Ireland would have an enormous competitive advantage as we seek to rebuild our economy. This is a great opportunity staring us in the face.
We cannot allow Ireland to go back 30 years when we were a flyover country with little connectivity to the world and our main export was our people.
Aengus Kelly is chief executive of aircraft leasing giant Aercap