GENEVA — As omicron case loads begin to plateau in many countries, IATA is stepping up its calls on governments to speed up the easing of travel restrictions.
COVID is evolving from pandemic to endemic, says IATA, and that means travel restrictions should evolve too.
IATA’s call-to-action for governments includes …
- Remove all travel barriers (including quarantine and testing) for travellers who are fully vaccinated with a WHO-approved vaccine
- Allowing quarantine-free travel for non-vaccinated travellers with a negative pre-departure antigen test result
- Remove travel bans
- Accelerate the easing of travel restrictions in recognition that travellers pose no greater risk for COVID-19 spread than already exists in the general population
IATA’s call echoes a letter sent last week by IATA’s Vice President, North America, Douglas Lavin, to Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, voicing IATA’s “strong opposition” to Canada’s on-arrival PCR test requirement for all air passengers.
Today IATA’s Director General, Willie Walsh, said that the billions of dollars spent testing global air travellers would be far more effective if allocated to vaccine distribution or strengthening health care systems.
“With the experience of the Omicron variant, there is mounting scientific evidence and opinion opposing the targeting of travellers with restrictions and country bans to control the spread of COVID-19. The measures have not worked. Today Omicron is present in all parts of the world. That’s why travel, with very few exceptions, does not increase the risk to general populations,” said Walsh in today’s statement.
Just this week the UK announced it was dropping the testing requirement for travellers. IATA says that a recently published study by Oxera and Edge Health show that if the UK’s extra measures with respect to omicron had been in place from the beginning of November (prior to the identification of the variant), the peak of the Omicron wave would have been delayed by just five days with 3% fewer cases.
And now that Omicron is well entrenched in the UK, if all travel testing requirements were removed, there would be no impact on omicron case numbers or hospitalizations in the UK.
Says Walsh: “While the study is specific to the UK, it is clear that travel restrictions in any part of the world have had little impact on the spread of COVID-19, including the Omicron variant. The UK, France and Switzerland have recognized this and are among the first to begin removing travel measures. More governments need to follow their lead. Accelerating the removal of travel restrictions will be a major step towards living with the virus.”
Meanwhile the WHO Emergency Committee confirmed recently their recommendation to lift or ease international traffic bans, calling them ineffective.
GETTING TO ENDEMIC
Thanks in large part to the omicron variant, COVID-19 is now so prevalent that all indications point to COVID-19 becoming an endemic condition—one that humankind now has the tools (including vaccination and therapeutics) to live and travel with, bolstered by growing population immunity, says IATA.
Walsh notes that this aligns with the advice from public health experts to shift the policy focus from an individual’s health status towards policies focusing on population-wide protection.
It is important that governments and the travel industry are well-prepared for the transition and ready to remove the burden of measures that disrupt travel, he says.
“The current situation of travel restrictions is a mess,” says Walsh. “There is one problem—COVID-19. But there seem to be more unique solutions to managing travel and COVID-19 than there are countries to travel to.”
He adds: “We have two years of experience to guide us on a simplified and coordinated path to normal travel when COVID-19 is endemic. That normality must recognize that travellers, with very few exceptions, will present no greater risk than exists in the general population. And that’s why travellers should not be subject to any greater restrictions than are applied to the general community.”
IATA’S 2021 STATS
Meanwhile according to IATA’s recently released full-year global passenger traffic results for 2021, demand for travel was up in 2021 – at least compared to 2020 – and that’s even with the omicron surge at the end of the year and renewed travel restrictions in many countries, says IATA.
However compared to 2019, global air travel still has a very long road back to recovery.
Demand fell by 58.4% compared to 2019. But it’s an improvement compared to 2020, when demand was down 65.8% versus 2019.
When broken out by international and domestic stats, international passenger demand in 2021 was 75.5% below 2019 levels. Capacity was down 65.3% and load factor fell 24 percentage points to 58.0%.
Meanwhile domestic demand in 2021 was down 28.2% compared to 2019. Capacity declined 19.2% and load factor dropped 9.3 percentage points to 74.3%.
Total traffic for the month of December 2021 was 45.1% below the same month in 2019. That was up from the 47% contraction in November, as monthly demand continued to recover despite concerns over omicron. Capacity was down 37.6% and load factor fell 9.8 percentage points to 72.3%.
Walsh says omicron travel restrictions slowed the recovery in international demand by about two weeks in December.
International demand has been recovering at a pace of about four percentage points/month compared to 2019. Without omicron, IATA’s projections put international demand for the month of December to improve to around 56.5% below 2019 levels. Instead, volumes rose marginally to 58.4% below 2019 from -60.5% in November.
“Overall travel demand strengthened in 2021. That trend continued into December despite travel restrictions in the face of Omicron. That says a lot about the strength of passenger confidence and the desire to travel,” said Walsh.
“The challenge for 2022 is to reinforce that confidence by normalizing travel. While international travel remains far from normal in many parts of the world, there is momentum in the right direction. Last week, France and Switzerland announced significant easing of measures. And yesterday the UK removed all testing requirements for vaccinated travellers. We hope others will follow their important lead, particularly in Asia where several key markets remain in virtual isolation,” he added.
By region, North American airlines’ full year traffic fell 65.6% compared to 2019. Capacity dropped 52%, and load factor was down 23.8 percentage points to 60.2%. December demand was down 41.7% compared to the same month a year ago, up from a 44.6% drop in November.
“As COVID-19 continues to evolve from the pandemic to endemic stage, it is past time for governments to evolve their responses away from travel restrictions that repeatedly have been shown to be ineffective in preventing the spread of the disease, but which inflict enormous harm on lives and economies,” says Walsh.
“A New Year’s resolution for governments should be to focus on building population immunity and stop placing travel barriers in the way of a return to normality.”