COVID-19 and Travel

This week my family and I are supposed to be having holiday in New Zealand; stretching our annual leaves by having holiday between 2 public holidays (Labour Day and Vesak Day).  It would be our penultimate holiday without following school holiday as next year our daughter will start her first year in primary school.

We also have plan to make another trip before end of the year, a long one, re-exploring Canada.  I even tried (but failed) to reserve for bus ticket to enter Lake Ohara, a beautiful lake deep inside Yoho National Park.  My wife and I visited the lake during our honeymoon, and we would like to visit the lake again, this time with our daughter. Some of spectacular photos of the Rockies I took were taken when we hiked around the lake.

Alas, because of COVID-19, our trip to New Zealand has not happened and our planned trip to Canada most likely will not happen either.

Until the world could address the COVID-19, either by finding effective medications, vaccine (which will take months to get one and additional months for mass vaccination, if countries could get hold the vaccine in the first place) or (ironically, when COVID-19 is spreading out-of-control) the community attained herd-immunity against COVID-19, travelling would not be the same.

In the attempt to limit the spread of the virus, various governments, including Canada and New Zealand, either imposed quarantine rule for visitors or returning citizens or closed the border altogether. Practically, we have multi-level lock-down, starting at household level, domestic travel and international levels.

Some countries, such as New Zealand, Germany have started to loosen up the lock-down, however the speed of easing up the lock-down vary from countries to countries and it does not immediately lead to opening up of the border. 

The quarantine rule for incoming passengers may still be apply.  There is always worry that lifting the lock-down too early and too fast may lead to another wave of COVID-19 which may be more devastating.  History taught us that the second wave of the 1918 Spanish flu (which ironically did not originate from Spain) claimed the most life.

Opening up the border may not immediately mean the return of travel as we had before COVID. The quarantine rule for incoming passengers may still be apply.  This would immediately disincentive any travels except for any essentials or emergencies. Nobody would like to spend 14 days upon arriving in a country, then spend one or two weeks for holiday, then spend another 14 days upon returning.

Scientists also learned that many people who contracted COVID-19 are asymptomatic, which means when the next wave of COVID-19 is detected in the population, the health system would be immediately behind the curve and another round of lock-down needs to be imposed in order to prevent further spread.

Travelling could not be planned well in advance anymore.  Air ticket, hotel could not be booked and paid in advance because there is no guarantee that the destination country remain opens when at the time of the travel.

Worse, if the lock down happened while inside the country.  The prospect to get extended holiday because the country is locked-down is simply unpalatable.

Some countries may impose mandatory health check for all visitors. It may take hours just to wait for the result.  Antibody tests may give result in minutes, but it may give false positives; the best result is from PCR test but it takes more time to complete. Those hours are spent waiting anxiously in the arrival area of the airport which is never known to provide good amenities in contrast to the departure area. 

A clean bill of health does not mean people are out of the wood; if there were one passenger seated tested positive for COVID-19, other passengers seated that passengers may also be quarantined. Travelling is suddenly involving so many uncertainties.

The worst part is when the test showed a positive result.  The question is, who will pay the cost of the hospitalization.  The local government may not want to foot the bills for non-residents.  Travel insurance industry, facing the prospect of high bill for COVID-19-related costs, may exclude COVID-19 from the coverage or impose high premium for the coverage. 

Airlines and countries may demand each passenger to have certificate that proofs him free from COVID-19.  The certificate may allow the passenger to bypass any health and quarantine check at destination country.  However, not many countries provide walk-in test for COVID-19; the tests are mostly reserved for people who have showed symptoms or for people who happened to be in close-contact with patient tested positive for COVID-19.   

Certification meant the person is free from COVID-19 at the time of the test. As the person may contract COVID-19 after the test, the validity of the certificate could not be too long. When the person (holding the certificate) is taking the flight back home, his certificate may no longer valid.

Lacking of certificate, the person may need to get test from local health system.  Local government may not be too kind for visitors as they need to prioritize local residents, imposing high cost for such test. There is also a certain level of uncertainties, if the test showed positive, the trip home is no longer possible and the person would need to spend additional days in hospital.

The flight itself would be different.

Planes are not designed for social distancing in-mind. Faced with requirements for social distancing, airlines need to separate the passengers by having empty seats between them.  However, there has not been any consensus on how far the distance is; the problem is the distance has major impact to airlines and passengers.

The easy solution is to have one empty seat between passengers.  In a standard economy class of the Airbus 350 (with 9 abreast seats) means a load reduction of 33%. Passengers may have to fork out the same extra percentage for the airfare.  However, if local authority insists for bigger gap, such as a 1-meter gap, there could be only 3 passengers for every 3 rows of standard Airbus 350; a reduction of almost 90% of loads.  This arrangement would make air ticket out-of-reach for many people; less people would be able to travel, less income for airlines.

Budget airlines, such as Air-Asia group, FR, WN, would also face additional pressure. Those airlines depend on quick turn-around so that it could maximize their fleet by having as many flights as possible in a day. However, with the requirements to disinfectant the cabin before flight, it is no longer possible to do a 25-minute turn-around.  More time is also needed for passengers to embark and disembark, such as by ensuring passengers seated at the back do no pass passengers seated at the front. Planes need to sit longer on the tarmac, which means less flights which is translated to higher cost.

For airlines that depend heavily on transit passengers and without domestic market such as SQ, EK and QR, border closure created another set of problem. Those airlines have no domestic market; even though the countries (where those airlines are based) are rich, they have small population which means a limited market for O&D (Origin and Destination). Those airlines instead depend heavily on picking up passengers from many countries to their hubs (such as SIN for SQ) and flying them to their destinations out of their hubs.

With countries closing its border, practically there is no market for those airlines to fly to.  When countries start to open up its border, it may not be immediately beneficial to SQ, QR or EK as each country opens its border at different time and may be in the wrong side of its network.

For example, the famous Kangaroo route would not make sense if only Australia and New Zealand opens its borders.  SQ, QR and EK need countries Australian likely to visit like the UK or North Asia countries to also open up its borders. 

For SQ, even if many countries in SQ’s network open up its borders, SQ may not be able to exploit it due to the situation in its hub, SIN.  Until Singapore showed it could control COVID-19 situation, many countries may ban travel or transiting via Singapore, which in effect banning SQ from carrying passengers from their countries.

Controlling the spread of COVID-19 may allow Singapore to establish open border with other countries that are also able to control COVID-19, similar to proposed travel-bubble between Australia and New Zealand. Such open border would allow free travel, potentially without the need for quarantine control.

The time when SIN opens for transit passengers is also important.  If other hubs like DOH and DXB open up earlier than SIN, those hubs would simply siphon away the limited number of passengers away from SQ and SIN.

Airlines are in difficult position. It needs passengers, but it could not easily stimulate demands by lowering the fare because doing so would simply suicidal – even with government’s support – as the fare would not cover the cost. And this still with assumptions that people are still flying and there is a relaxation of border and quarantine control.  With economy grinds to halt due to lock-down, many people are out-of-job or have less incomes.  People and business would prioritize what essentials for them; travelling, either for leisure or business, would be lower in the priority list.

With less passengers, airlines would become smaller. Airlines will need to reduce frequency, close or suspend some routes and reduce its fleets and manpower. Many airlines would not survive with consolidations, government-support [] and bankruptcy would become common. 

It is clearly difficult time for airlines, airports and passengers.  For passengers who have their flights disrupted, many airlines offered credits rather than reimbursements.  Airlines need to preserve the cash; and offering credits is the way to preserve the cash.  However, it means passengers (including me) now become creditors to airlines. The credits may worth zero either due to time-limit or the airlines is totally gone under. Best outcome would be to utilise the credits after the whole COVID-19 is over but perhaps with less value as the ticket fare may increase due to social-distracting requirement.

It is heart-wrenching to me (who have strong interest in aviation industry) to see so many planes parked in the airports through out the world.  No doubt we, as human, could overcome COVID-19 but it will take years and during and after that period, the aviation industry would be different.

As for my family’s holiday; I don’t think we can fly to New Zealand, soon.  With so much uncertainties, staying put perhaps the best options.

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