Opinion: Peter Griffiths, director general at Aviation administration of Kazakhstan

View of the current challenges facing the aviation industry

air transport crisis Peter Griffiths, director general at Civil Aviation administration of Kazakhstan (CAAKZ)

Who would have predicted when I got a request to write something on disruptions in January, that we were about to see a viral outbreak go global and cause a very large disruption to our way of life. Today, dozens of countries are declaring a state of emergency and are closing borders.

What is the effect of Air Travel in this and our global economy, and do we, as leaders of our industries, need to think more about the impacts of global travel in a new way?

The virus is very simple it’s a variation on a strain of viruses well known for years and it has been responsible for outbreaks of a similar nature. SAR’s is one, and that affected the airline industry when that was detected. They are very easy to transmit, often by droplet infection, and at present this strain, known as Covid 19, has a very high transmission rate. It is this very simplicity that makes this one so difficult to control as physical contact with the virus through touch, or in close proximity with sneezing, or coughing can transmit it. Thankfully its mortality rate to date is low, with 80 % of people not to badly affected, 20% very badly affected and 3% at risk. The virus however can overwhelm medical support teams and this can cause this rate to rise. it is this problem we are trying to control now via the very strong control measures being put in.

There are two factors which appear to be an issue, its speed of transmission that has the ability to overwhelm health care teams as so many people can be affected at the same time, and the second issue that appears to concern medical staff, is its ability to mutate and produce new strains which will defeat vaccines when they are developed.

The Air Travel concern?

Global Travel like so many things in life is now a norm for many. Increasing affluence and decreasing fares has now given the ability to a large proportion of the global population access to relatively cheap, and frequent travel opportunities. There is very little of the planet not accessible by air, so a mild outbreak, normally containable, can become a global pandemic very quickly. Given that carriers of the infection may not know for days they are infected, as its early symptoms are difficult to detect, and that they will be infectious during this early period, it is easy that a person may be spreading the virus unknowingly whilst travelling.

Air travel is relatively comfortable, but it cannot be described as spacious. If an infected person happens to be sitting in the centre bank of seats in the economy section of a large wide body jet the avenues of infection can be quite sizable. Adjacent passengers cannot avoid touching, dinning utensils, and trips to the on-board toilet facilities are all opportunities for the virus to remain undetected and be picked up by another passenger. As we have seen with ships, close confinement is a very good place for the virus to infect.

Once they have arrived at their destination as can be seen every day in every arrival all personal contact is frequent, more opportunities for infection spread. All of this is driven by the virus capability to hide for days in our global world. All supporting calls to stop travel and stop the transmission. A perfect storm for the airline industry constantly at the forefront of disruption events such as; volcanoes, weather, wars, terrorism, etc.

Containing the disruption

Managing a disruption is best made in two steps. Stop the disruptor, and manage the recovery.

It is now evident that for a period of time our aviation industry will be badly affected by the virus spread, but to contain it all travel beyond local regions would need to stop for a period of at least 42 days. Inevitably this will mean flight may cease for a period. In my own area flights are restricted or cancelled for a period of 3 months to countries such as China, Iran and Korea. This will take in more regions and flights as the virus spreads. This can contain the virus to centres of infection and stop the spread on a global basis.

Pre-flight screening has so far not been successful as it does not detect pre symptomatic people or asymptomatic individuals who can be spreading the virus.  This is easier said than done. Shutting down travel results in many finding novel ways to beat the shut down and only one infector is necessary for a breakout of the virus. This allows local response like that seen in China, and Korea and now Italy to take effect.

For an airline this could, and for some will, be a disaster.

Recovery will take some time. Whilst managing the infections locally, time is necessary to restore travel. Infection rates dropping is insufficient, there must a zero-infection rate for a period of time to restore travel. It is possible to see break outs of new clusters even then and this results in local break outs. Again and this will clearly need to be managed to ensure no return.  It must be remembered that during this period we cannot test and train crews we cannot inspect aircraft, and we cannot assess industry risks. When we all get going again all of this will need to happen demand for simulators will be high to retrain crews and simply grounding aircraft producers new risks. So it will not be switched on overnight, the crisis is over we can go back to work. It will take many months to get going again stretching regulators and our industry. We must all work together to restore it.

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