The International Air Transport Association (IATA) called on governments in the Middle East to develop plans to safely re-link their citizens, businesses and economies to global markets when the COVID-19 epidemiological situation permits.

IATA also called for regional coordination to ensure that the plans can be efficiently implemented and urged governments to remain vigilant about the industry’s financial situation.

According to IATA Regional Vice President for Africa and the Middle East Kamil Al Awadhi, re-establishing air connectivity will energise the economic recovery from COVID-19.

With millions of jobs at risk from the prolonged shutdown, not a day should be lost once the epidemiological situation enables re-opening. Restarting safely after a year or more in lockdown will need careful preparations. At the national level, it is important that governments work with industry, so everyone understands the benchmarks that need to be achieved to facilitate the lifting of travel restrictions. And at the regional level, where traffic is expected to ramp-up first, it is critical that governments are talking to each other so that all parties are aligned and ready for a restart.

IATA data shows that January air passenger traffic in the region was down 82.3% compared to January 2019. The ongoing crisis puts over 1.7 million jobs in the Middle East and US$105 billion in GDP at risk.

This is a unique situation. But we have good practices to rely on. Safety is the top priority for anything associated with aviation. That is because governments have long-established global best practices for working together with industry and with each other.

Al Awadhi said that this same approach will help the re-start as there are two ends to every route and both must be prepared or the restart cannot happen.

Critical areas 

Operational restart. A successful operational restart will include bringing aircraft and terminals back into service. Airlines need to ready their crew, technical personnel and aircraft. After a year of lockdowns, this requires refresher training and checks. A regional overview is needed to (1) ensure that the one country’s restart qualifications are accepted by its regional partners and (2) ensure that sufficient infrastructure capacity is ready to meet demand as markets unlock.

Travel Credentials. Testing and vaccinations will play a role in opening borders to travel as the pandemic comes under control. Simple, efficient and harmonized standards for what credentials people will need to travel will boost consumer confidence and give strength to the recovery.

IATA Travel PassThe ICAO Council’s recent approval of requirements for globally accepted COVID-19 test certificates, including the technology framework for secure digital versions and the future incorporation of vaccination certificates provides a global framework. Cooperation for a harmonized implementation across the Middle East will put the region on a solid footing for recovery.

IATA Travel Pass will help to conveniently manage health credentials while protecting against fraud. With Qatar Airways already piloting IATA Travel Pass and Emirates, Etihad and Gulf Air signed-up for trials, the Gulf is at the forefront of preparations, said Al Awadhi.

READ ALSO: Qatar Airways Begins Trial of Innovative IATA Travel Pass ‘Digital Passport’

Financial relief is essential 

In 2020, Middle East airlines posted losses amounting to US$7.1 billion, a loss of US$68.47 for each passenger flown. With traffic at less than 20% of 2019 levels, the cash burn continues even with severe cost-cutting.

Airlines in the region received US$4.8 billion in government aid in 2020. Most of this support (US$4.1 billion) was distributed through direct cash injections. Despite this, several airlines in the Middle East remain at risk of bankruptcy.

Al Awadhi said that a financially viable air transport sector will be needed to energise the recovery. Government relief for airlines has avoided massive failures that would jeopardise a restart. This has not been uniform across the region.

With no clear timeline to recovery, the situation is far from resolved. Governments that have provided relief will need to be prepared for more. Governments that have not yet stepped-up must recognise the growing risks to their economies as the crisis drags on.

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