Domestic airlines are expected to commence flight operations this week, in some selected routes. In this piece, CHUKWUEMEKE IWELUNMO looks at the new operational procedures adopted by domestic carriers and the expectation of passengers.
It is expected that, most domestic airlines will resume flight operations across the country. In the post-covid-19 era, experts have observed that air travels will not remain the same as it was operated before the pandemic. Air passengers should, therefore, expect lots of changes in the way things were done in the past.
As people dream of taking to the skies once more, they face the prospect that changes to curb the spread of coronavirus will be even more challenging than those brought in after the 2001 terror attacks in the United States.
With the new normal approach, air travellers would be subjected to new and stiffer conditions for flying as soon as flight operations resume. In addition to the strict security measures, passengers will now encounter a barrage of checks for Covid-19.
The New Normal Approach
Commenting on what passengers should expect when flight resumes, the President and Chief Executive Officer, Sabre Network, West Africa, Dr Gbenga Olowo told journalists, that, there will be stiffer conditions for travellers during the post Covid-19 era.
Dr Olowo who made the confirmation said that, with the resumption of domestic flight operations next week, face mask, hand-washing sanitisation will be a necessary and sufficient condition for travel.
According to Olowo, health certificate valid for at least 14 days, which will be scannable on phones, just like boarding pass should also be a necessary condition for travel to avoid isolation at the destination.
The aviation expert, therefore, noted that such development is a very big challenge for port health services. He equally observed that” on board, social distancing will be quite challenging except aircraft will be configured to all first-class seats for economic operations.
“No airline can ever break even with less than 40 per cent load factor at the extremely low fares prevalent in the market where passengers pay less than $100 per hour on jet engines. This was the levels 30 years ago precisely 1990 Lagos-Abuja N2, 200 at an exchange rate of N 22 per Dollar. The issue is whether the passengers can afford higher levels of the tariff”.
This is where government intervention in airline economics is needed in Nigeria. The intervention can be achieved by deliberate application of subsidies on fuel, taxes, airport charges, VAT, 5 per cent or lower interest rate on loans, quick forex availability, in order to lower airlines cost of operations.
Challenge of Aircraft Maintenance
Speaking on the resumption of domestic flights operation, Capt. Ado Sanusi, the Managing Director of Aero Contractors, one of the oldest carriers in Nigeria said airlines in the country would be ready to go back to the skies at the scheduled time.
Sanusi who spoke recently said airlines would be fully ready but warned that there is need for caution because some of the protocols such as disinfecting the aircraft must conform to international best standards and must be guided by the input of the aircraft manufacturers.
According to him, aviation is highly regulated and so Nigeria must be careful when it comes to the aviation business. He said the aircraft that have been idle since March are not the same as parking a car for too long and one day you jump into the car, start it and move.
He said, “We must be careful when we are restarting. It is not like parking a car for long and then jump into the car, start it and drive. Yes we have some protocols that needs to be done but in every contest, we (Aero) are ready to start anytime from now and I believe most of the airline to have gone far in all the protocols the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority wants us to do. Most of them are training and some kind of manuals that we need to do and some are also are the acquisition of the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that we need to have for the crew and some are reviewing the procedures that we need to do during check in and disembarking as well as disinfecting the aircraft to get them ready for takeoff.”
Social distancing inside aircraft
On social distancing inside the airplane, the Aero Contractor’s boss said it is not realistic to achieve social distancing inside a single-aisle plane but said operators should focus their attention to ensuring that all protocols at the airport and in the aircraft are strictly followed in line with short/domestic flights as recommended by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
He said if that was done, the possibility of contracting COVID-19 inside the airplane will be minimized to zero.
Already, IATA is opposed to social distancing in airplane, even when most carriers have canvassed to adopt “leaving middle seats empty”. In a statement issued recently, the association came out strongly opposed to governments enforcing social distancing on airplanes, saying airlines would most likely fall below their “break-even” point if they had to remove capacity on their planes.
According to Brian Pearce, IATA’s chief economist “middle seat removal happens it will mean that 67 per cent of total seats” will be removed from sale and airlines will not be able to make money and fares would rise almost 55 per cent for airlines just to break even and airlines will “really struggle to be financially viable”.
Technology investments as panacea
Stakeholders in the travel, trade and airlines sub-sector have been charged to improve on technology deliveries in order to remain relevant post-COVID-19 era. The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) has also been called upon to enhance technology for the new international protocols on check-in procedures for air travellers in a bid to improve the turnaround performance of airlines.
Speaking recently at an industry forum with the theme: ‘Understanding Travel Complexities Post-COVID-19’, Views from the Stakeholders,’ panellists urged stakeholders in the travel and aviation sectors to increase their technology performance to be able to compete in the new era.
Participants at the conference said without technology and dissemination of adequate information, the recovery level of air travel in the country would be slow when compared to other countries around the world.
Mr Gbenga Onitilo, country manager, Cabo Verde Airline, lamented that the advent of coronavirus had reduced capacity for airlines by over 90 per cent, while about 30 million people are directly and indirectly unemployed globally as a result of the pandemic, but noted that the crisis had compelled the need for innovation on business environments.
Onitilo explained that the global travel sector would never remain the same post-COVID-19 virus until vaccines are developed to combat the disease, regretting that the countries with the highest number of tourists like the United States, United Kingdom, Italy and a few others are mostly impacted by the pandemic.
He noted that as a result of the lockdown, numerous countries’ Gross Domestic Products (GDPs) were affected, emphasising that the travel sector thrived only on buoyant economies.
He further explained that airport performance would determine the airline’s turnaround performance and said while the world was aware of the latest developments in other aviation countries; the same could not be said of Nigeria as yet.
On resumption of flight operations, Onitilo explained that no airline would operate beyond 40 to 50 per cent capacity and expressed doubt about the preparation of Nigerian airports towards post-Covid-19 era.
He said “We are not going to return to pre-COVID-19 era again in the way we do our businesses. So far, we have about 600,000 deaths globally, which has brought changes in human interactions. A lot of air travellers are bothered about aviation and the possibility of contracting Covid-19 onboard aircraft.
“Everybody is now innovative about taking the business to their customers, even, the airlines are having a lot of shifts. The travel sector can never be the same again until you have the vaccines, which may come in the next 18 months. People have lost jobs and thousands of people are redundant. The protocols of airlines to ensure safety will determine the travel for the future.”
Also, Mr Abiola Bakare, Sales Manager, Nigeria, Air Cote D’Ivoire in his submission expressed optimism that the travel industry would return to the pre-COVID-19 era in the next two or three years.
He said, Air Cote D’Ivoire had put in measures to facilitate passengers’ check-ins at all the airports it’s operating from, including Nigeria.
Like Onitilo, he stated that the advent of the virus would put a change to air travel businesses, but noted air travellers would only patronise the sector when they are sure of total safety.
Bakare charged air operators to be ingenious and think out of the box in order to compete post-COVID-19 era, stressing that it was time the operators worked with Travel Management Companies (TMCs) for improved delivery to clients.
He also called for a harmonised health certificate for all travellers worldwide, saying that people would not travel if they would be isolated for 14 days in any country.
“Going on 20 days holidays and having to spend the first 15 days in isolation will not worth the while,” he stated.
“Covid-19 has come to stay here with us and may end up like a way of life just like malaria, yellow fever and others in Africa. For Air Cote D’Ivoire, passengers would need about three hours to go through the check-in. Even, FAAN in a statement said passengers should expect delays at airports.
On her part, Mrs Susan Akporiaye, President, National Association of Nigerian Travel Agency (NANTA), expressed optimism that the travel agencies would blossom more post-COVID-19 era as more travellers would seek more information about their travel plans and destinations.
She, however, called on travel agency practitioners to equip themselves with more relevant information and charged the government to release more necessary information on new procedures to the body for an easy transition.
“The government should stop thinking that we as travel agents will come to ask them for money. What we need is international standards in our operations for the country. People want to travel, but are also careful about safety”, she added Faddy Bazzi, Managing Director, Bazzi Voyage, appealed to some of the employers in the sector to be cautious on laying off their workers.
He also charged African countries to increase their testing capacities to boost travel participation.Mr Allen Awosikunde, Senior Vice President Sabre Network, West Africa, pointed out that 60 per cent of air travel would return in the nearest future, but said most of this would be business travels.