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Is This the End of Commercial Air Travel as We Know It?

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, July 24

One of the complaints I hear most often these days pertains to air travel. How is it possible that many of us have returned to work in our offices, spend weekends at restaurants and parks, and go shopping at malls and stores yet are forbidden from stepping onto an airplane? How is it possible that all of these other activities have been made possible even in light of COVID-19 while air travel remains forbidden? First, do not forget that commercial aviation is the main reason for the spread of coronavirus around the globe. It was commercial travel that imported the virus from remote parts of Asia into most of the rest of the world. Popular tourist destinations like Italy were the first to be struck. Then the virus spread to New York City and the remainder of America. Because the airline industry played such a critical role in helping the spread of the disease, it should be held to a different standard – perhaps a stricter and more punitive one – than other industries. International travel cannot resume until a vaccine or an effective treatment for COVID-19 is developed. And vaccines aren’t invented overnight; they are created in labs, they must be tested in clinical trials, they must be mass-produced, and finally they must be marketed and administered. This will clearly take time. International travel was already reshaped once, by the attacks of September 11, 2001. The experience of air travel changed dramatically since then. The COVID-19 “attack” appears to be even more severe in its effect. It may very well shape the future of commercial aviation for decades to come. Indeed, it may prove even more costly and troublesome to airlines than the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Bulletproof doors, secret cameras, armed security guards on planes and electronic passports have all become norms in the wake of the attack. This is without even mentioning the booming industry of inspection and screening devices that have emerged in recent years. What new inventions and standards will COVID-19 bring? This is where governments will have to step in to save airlines from collapsing. Increased operational costs combined with months of negative income will likely push most airlines into bankruptcy. Without any governmental help, airlines seeking to stay in business will have to increase prices and thus make international travel unaffordable for most people. Therefore, it would be far wiser for governments to invest money and resources in precautionary measures, protective health and education campaigns, which will achieve a similar outcome without forcing airlines to shut down their operations. If we look at 9/11 we can already begin to understand the effect that COVID-19 will have about the way we will be travelling the world. – Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)