Health safety is now unquestionably the primary driver for commercial aviation success. Will the sector now reimagine itself to deliver what is required? Ian Matheson’s provides a thought-provoking op-ed. – Peter Marshall

By: Ian Matheson, CEO 3BP Solutions

Commercial aviation is the most efficient system for the transportation of people, connecting the world’s population in mere hours, promoting trade, cultural exchanges, and unfortunately enabling the accelerated spread of infectious diseases.

It is safe to say that the COVID-19 Pandemic has devastated commercial aviation; passenger demand has retreated by more than 80% and there is no promise of recovery in the foreseeable future. Yet, over the past 10 months, the industry has doggedly resisted internal change while aggressively seeking economic bailouts and relief from its payment obligations.

I would argue that the industry’s future viability is not dependent on another round of financial aid but rather relies on resolving the systemic weaknesses of its operating paradigm to address health safety priorities.  Innovative and effective health safety solutions are required to draw passengers confidently back to their seats. 

At the beginning of this Pandemic did you have that uncanny sense of deja vu? Like you have lived this exact aviation response plan time and time again? That’s probably because you have: six times in the last 17 years to be precise. (2003 SARS, 2009 H1N1, 2012 MERS, 2014 Ebola, 2015 Zika, 2019 COVID19)

Despite multiple scientific studies, published after each outbreak, declaring that airport temperature screening and health questionnaires were costly and of negligible value, the industry opted for the easy to implement but ineffective “perception of action” program that depends 100% on the ‘hope this goes away” strategy to succeed. It is estimated that the first five outbreaks mentioned the collective cost to the industry and world economies at $250 to $500 billion. COVID-19 is estimated at $16 Trillion and counting. Are we still ignoring earlier lessons because it would be too inconvenient and difficult to implement changes?

The COVID-19 pandemic is about to surpass 60 million cases and 1.4 million deaths. Over 80% of the world’s population lives in countries where COVID-19 cases are still on the rise. This pandemic is far from over and it is likely that the worst is yet to come. Experts say the mass production and distribution of vaccines is months away and may take years to fully implement. Even more sobering, scientists and epidemiologists have been warning us since 2015 of a coronavirus pandemic. Those same experts maintain that it is not a question of whether another pandemic will sweep the world, but of when.

I am struck by the following quote from 2003:
“The National Advisory Committee on SARS and Public Health has found that there was much to learn from the outbreak of SARS in Canada—in large part because too many earlier lessons were ignored.” (October 2003, Learning from SARS, Public Health Canada)

It seems to me that the industry has become myopic and complacent about its achievements, dismissive of competition, and unimaginative in considering what innovation may challenge it next. Video conferencing is now firmly entrenched as the valuation of Zoom has surpassed the seven largest airlines, combined. What’s next? Will advances in virtual reality redefine business travel? Will the industry even see it coming? Remember, Kodak, Blockbuster and Nokia were once Titans in their realm too, but each failed to adapt to a changing culture and marketplace.

The post-pandemic reality has arrived, and health safety is now the primary driver for commercial aviation success. It is time to re-imagine the air travel experience, to redefine passengers as partners, and align our shared priorities to achieve safer, more secure and affordable travel. The industry will be accountable for the decisions it now makes and for how it uses this time, this opportunity, to re-invent itself. So, have lessons been learned? Time will tell.

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