Air bridges, travel bubbles, adapted airports: Will they help us to fly this summer?

The latest on what you need to know about on travelling overseas in the coming months

Are we any closer to knowing if we will be able to travel overseas this summer?
Maybe, but not much and things are still far from clear. "We wouldn't like to see any cases [of Covid-19] being imported if we can avoid that," Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan said this week as he advised people to continue to avoid all non-essential and holiday travel to and from Ireland. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) is also still advising "against all non-essential travel overseas until further notice." That advisory includes Britain but not Northern Ireland.

Are there other restrictions still in place?
Yes, the regulations that remain in force require people entering the Republic from abroad to provide the address where they will be self-isolating for the required 14-day period. They were extended for a further three weeks and will now be in place until at least July 9th.

What do those restrictions mean?
It means that everyone arriving the State at airports or ports, must fill in a passenger locator form to allow authorities to check if individuals are self-isolating for 14 days as advised, and for contact tracing purposes. People who do not fill out the passenger locator form or who provide false details can face a fine of €2,500 or a prison term of six months.

But airlines are flying, right?
Well, they certainly have plans to and the charge to take to the air again is being led by Ryanair. It has said it has seen a "surge " of bookings from Irish holiday makers for July and August with people seeking to fly to the sun. It is, however, worth pointing out that while the airline talks about a surge in new bookings, many of the seats on flights bound to Spain, Portugal and Italy this summer will have been sold to Irish families who had plans in place long before the pandemic hit.

So if the restrictions remain in place and flights take off, will people get their money back?
No. Under the rules if a plane takes off and a passenger follows official guidance and avoids non-essential travel overseas then they are regarded as a no-show and are not entitled to any money back.

But I have heard talk of air bridges. Are they a thing now?
They are certainly becoming one. Air bridges are travel agreements between countries that have low transmission rates. Both countries have to be willing to accept departure screening measures for passengers, removing the need for travel bans or quarantine.

And have they happened?
Yes. In the middle of May Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia created a travel bubble to facilitate free movement between the three countries. Hungary and Slovenia are two other EU states which have done something similar while Portugal, Turkey, Greece and Spain are all following suit and setting up travel corridors to allow millions of tourists from specific countries to travel there for holidays without restriction.

Is Ireland one of those countries?
As yet, no, although the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has raised the possibility of establishing them with EU countries which have suppressed the virus, and Government officials have been engaged in talks with several countries about rolling out them out in the weeks ahead.

Weeks ahead? What does that mean?
It is hard to say for sure, but two weeks ago the Minister for Enterprise Heather Humphries said we were "behind other countries in terms of the stage we're at with the virus, and that's why there's differences between us, and other EU countries". She promised that air bridge deals would be put in place "with countries that have flattened the curve to a similar level as we have. So we would be looking at lifting travel restrictions, if people are flying to and from countries where the virus has been successfully suppressed."

She said that it was “weeks away and it’s far too early for anyone to book holidays yet, but I want to be clear that we have plans in place, and we will activate them as soon as it is safe to do so”.

But there must be a timeframe
Well, the next phase in the exit from Lockdown starts on June 29th. Co-incidentally, that is the same date the UK is planning to outline which countries it will have air bridges to, although according to reports in the UK, those bridges will not come into affect until July 4th.

So when we will know what is happening?
Perhaps as soon as later today. At a meeting yesterday, the National Publiic Health Emergency Taskforce (NPHET) finalised details of the two remaining stages of the plan to reopen the economy and the country and their recommendations are being considered by Ministers today.

At a briefing following the meeting, Prof Philip Nolan, chair of its Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group, said Covid-19 was at a very low level in the State and very stable but he said a resurgence in the number of new Covid-19 infections in the State as a result of foreign travel, including from Britain and Sweden, has raised concerns among public health officials.

And what will travel look like when it restarts?
Passengers will be asked to wear face masks for a start. DAA, the State company responsible for Cork and Dublin airports, says public access to terminals will be limited to passengers, travellers will have to maintain the two-metre social distance and there will be constant reminders about hand washing. DAA has installed more than 960 hand sanitisers in Dublin and Cork and therer will be hundreds of plexiglass screens at close contact points. DAA has also said it will regularly deep clean and disinfect all hard surfaces, including trays, handrails and self-service kiosks, while paying close attention to places where passengers congregate. Masks are likely to be a requirement on board planes.

Will air bridges apply to other parts of the world?
Things are moving slowly and travelling within the EU is probably the best Irish people can hope for in the weeks ahead.

What about the US? Are we likely to see an air bridge to that country?
That certainly seems unlikely in the short term. Covid-19 is not under control there and its leading public health official Dr Anthony Fauci indicated last week that that US restrictions on international travel could remain in place for months and perhaps until a vaccine is developed.