Aviation's Response to the Pandemic

Airplane Photo

No Longer Grounded, Airline Industry Responds to COVID-19 Challenges

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the aviation sector is well- documented. Data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has shown global demand for flights has dropped 51%, from 2.9 million in September 2019 to 1.4 million in September 2020. It’s an unprecedent crisis for the industry. But there are signs of a slow but steady recovery.

Although the travel bans initially forced some airlines to ground fleets, planes have been flying again as restrictions in some areas ease. Behind the scenes, airlines have been undergoing projects to deal with changing regulations and have been upgrading safety standards to make their flights COVID-19 safe. 

The need for a project management office in the airline industry

Global management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group (BCG) has called for airlines to establish a project management office (PMO) to help them plan, budget and consolidate to emerge stronger from the crisis.

Colin Baker, executive chairman of private jet charter company 365 Aviation, said: “The short-term impact was a shock. How do we deal with a moving target in terms of regulations, rules and guidance?”

However, for the long-term, Baker has a positive view that the aviation sector will be able to cope and make the necessary changes because they already have strong protocols in place.

“The aviation business is very structured and there are lots of procedures in place,” he said. “From that perspective, we are probably able to adapt more than many industries and can add extra layers on top of the protocols that already exist.”

How to make a plane COVID-19 safe

The biggest project 365 Aviation has had to undertake since COVID-19 began has been with regard to safeguarding clients.

“Previously, anything to do with health and safety was kind of taken as a given,” said Baker.  Now clients are demanding to know what they are doing to make their flight safe. This does not stop at hand sanitizer and masks. Clients also want more detailed information about crew rotations, air filtration systems, if the aircraft comes from a high-risk zone and COVID-19 testing for people on board.

Baker said: “We have had to be much clearer with clients what new procedures are being put in place. It definitely adds a lot of extra information, which needs to be communicated.”

Once on board new methods have also been introduced at 365 Aviation. Instead of cabin crew being up front and asking the clients what they want all the time, they only do so when the client asks them.

“It is more a case of separating the crew from the passengers,” explained Baker. “We look at a crew being a bubble, the passengers being a bubble and reducing the contact between these two bubbles,” he said. 

What airline operators are doing on the tarmac 

On the ground, airline operators play a large part in keeping a plane COVID-19 safe.

Baker said: “From a project perspective, some of these operators are having to bring in specialist companies that are specifically focused on virus control and general hygiene.

“Some of the things they may have had in place and might not have had in place previously are things like these UV robots, which previously would have been a step too far.

“But also fogging of cabins as well; we have probably been on planes before, where they have suddenly cracked open a couple of canisters and walked through the aircraft. The fogging of aircraft is to make sure you are trying to kill viruses in every nook and cranny.”

But not all the technologies or equipment used to fight COVID-19—such as Perspex® screens used in the hospitality industry—are practical on a plane.

“You got to remember when you start putting things on planes they are subject to strict safety requirements,” said Baker. “For example, if you started putting Perspex® in between seats, that might sound like a positive measure, but is that fire-retardant material? Has anyone tested this in the evacuation of an aircraft? The interior of an aircraft is a fixed environment. You can’t just change that like you could in a restaurant.”

Understanding your supply chain

What has been difficult for Baker from a project management perspective is making sure all the necessary safety procedures have been completed and can be verified by the operator, as clients have called for clarity on safeguarding.

“For example,” Baker explains, “how far would you go if someone said your crew has come from a safe country, would you start requesting copies of the crew’s passports and their documentation?

Baker said: “If someone said the aircraft had been cleaned is it feasible to start digging into it okay we would like to see the actual notes from the contract to verify the work has been done. That is definitely a challenge, people feel that is overreach.”

Managing moving targets

But for Baker it is not only about understanding what is happening in the supply chain, but also keeping on top of any new regulations that might come out. The industry is at the mercy of changing regulations and requirements.

Over the summer, Baker had a problem in the United Kingdom, as three different airports told him different entry requirements for the same passengers and aircraft. “This has certainly been a challenge,” he said. “The dissemination of information has been surprisingly poor at times.

“I can only assume new regulations are coming through and sometimes individuals you are speaking to might not be fully up to speed,” said Baker. “Individuals sometimes also, in a time like this, may want to go a little bit above and beyond.

“They want to be extra careful because they want to do their bit to keep everyone safe and there is a certain amount of unknown around what is happening.”

What is also difficult is that the situation is very different between countries and jurisdictions, Baker explained. In Asia, it is quite hard to fly at the moment. There are no bubbles or safe corridors. Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore and others have managed to keep the infection rates very low, but that is done through isolating the country.

What is ahead for the airline industry

Baker thinks once airlines get going again and travel restrictions are lifted people, generally speaking, will get use to the new protocols on board aircrafts.

He said: “Most people will probably trust that if governments have reduced quarantine restrictions, if the headline numbers of infections are relatively low, if they open up travel corridors and say aircraft are safe to fly on again, people will start flying again.”

Although people will return to flying, he expects the devastation caused by COVID-19 on the airline industry will be felt for many years.

“It is going to be a very long road for the airlines,” he said. “Airlines are an extremely capital intensive business and they are not all going to make it.”