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Travel in the time of COVID

A new era of responsible travel is on the horizon. What can the aviation industry be doing to lead responsibly in a post pandemic world?

What is the difference between a mosquito and an aeroplane? A mosquito can only infect one person at a time. We have never had a global pandemic of such a highly contagious pathogen in the era of international air travel. Very quickly at the start of the pandemic in early 2020, it became evident that aircraft were the viral vector. The pathogen carriers that would transport COVID most efficiently around the world. In markets where infectious disease outbreaks are common, vector control is an essential part of daily life.

Government campaigns encourage people to take action to avoid and eradicate the most common vectors, most typically these are mosquitos, carriers of malaria or dengue fever. For those countries that either shut their borders or insisted on strict quarantine rules and contact tracing for incoming passengers, the impact on pathogen control in their populations has been significant. Hong Kong and Singapore have been especially effective in vector control in this respect and a new study from the University of Aberdeen puts high mortality rates squarely at the feet of international travel (1).

As we climb slowly out of the darkest days of the pandemic, and industries start to lobby governments around the world to have restrictions lifted that are hurting them particularly, it is essential that we see the international travel and airline industry for what it is. A global vector.

So, how do we travel responsibly? 

We have taken a deep dive into the factors that will affect the airline industry and how they might shift from ‘victim’ mentality to leading the way for responsible travel. This is even more important in light of the recent Ryanair TV campaign promoting “jab and go”, which very quickly became the third most complained about piece of advertising according to the Advertising Standards Authority and has been taken off air for promoting irresponsible behaviours. Here are seven factors the travel and airline industry should look to take into account as they attempt to rebuild their business throughout 2021.

1.     The vaccine roll out in the EU markets is proving to have a lot of grit in the system, from approvals and licensing, to pricing challenges, to logistics. We’re seeing a much slower roll out than initially hoped, which is going to have a big impact on short haul across the continent. The US based Center for Disease Control anticipate that herd immunity will kick in when >60% of a population has been vaccinated. If you take the rate of vaccination in France for example, and the fact that they have the highest levels of vaccine scepticism in the world at >30%, France is likely to remain at risk from incoming travellers for some time to come. Airline operators will need to keep a close eye on that vaccination rate/herd immunity figure at a country-by-country level, potentially opening up routes to follow and working with individual governments on tourist promotional strategies. For example, a city break in Tel Aviv might be first on the list in the Spring, rather than a late ski trip to the Alps.

2.     In general terms, much of Central America and sub-Saharan Africa suffer from extremely poor health infrastructure; much of their vaccination programmes rely on developed world funding from global groups like GAVI. They will be late to the party when it comes to herd immunity and may never quite catch up, especially if vaccination programmes become annualised. With a typically younger population, the impact of COVID in these markets has been less significant than in the older developed world. But it may mean that for travellers going to these nations, COVID becomes another endemic disease to worry about.

3.     The aviation industry could potentially lobby for vaccine passports, but if they do it too early then it makes them look irresponsible - that they don’t understand the science – and, as in the case of Ryanair, opportunistic. The vaccines have not been proven as yet to stop you from catching or spreading the disease, the trials were set up to measure severe disease and mortality rates not transmissibility. Transmissibility is a secondary outcome, and we are unlikely to get those data until well into the summer (although some early data out of Israel and from Astra-Zeneca/Oxford look promising). What that means for a traveller is that the passport is useless today because they could still be bringing the virus into a country with a susceptible population and, even worse, that traveller will most likely be asymptomatic. The passport is a good idea in the long run, especially if the disease becomes a regular seasonal occurrence, but the value exchange will only work if you have a vaccinated traveller heading into a well vaccinated country.

4.     Quarantines, passenger monitoring and the complexities of pre-flight tests are going to be the biggest hurdle for some time to come, especially now there is clear evidence that they are extremely effective NPI  (non-pharmaceutical intervention). I would estimate that tough quarantines will stay in place for at least the first two quarters of the year, possibly with a let up by Q3. But there will then be some nervousness as we head towards another winter season in the Northern hemisphere. Evidently Thailand did a big push for their 2020 November/Christmas season for Western travellers and no-one came, indicating there is still a lot of hesitancy.

5.     There is some anecdotal evidence that the grey pound will drive growth first. This will come as no surprise, as they will feel most confident post-vaccination to start travelling again and have the ready cash. But again, if they are faced with the first 10 days stuck in their hotel room the hurdle may be too big for the price.

6.     Mutant variants are worrying the scientific community most at the moment. The vaccine developers are staying on top of the mutant strains and getting just enough efficacy in the current platforms to control both the UK and the South African strain. Mutations are happening all the time, and we are likely to continue to see more infectious or more dangerous strains appear while there are such a high number of infections across the globe. The airline industry has a responsibility to help shut down mutant strains, especially those that are more transmissible, and can learn from government mistakes of late border controls. It would go a long way for its reputation if it promised to control flights to these countries more strictly than governments currently do.

7.     And finally, business travel. That era may well be dead, and if it’s not I think it unlikely that it will ever recover to the same levels. Combine Larry Fink’s 2021 letter to CEOs demanding more urgent climate action from all listed companies (2), with the cost cutting businesses have been able to achieve, business travel has proven itself not only dispensable but an easy target for lowering carbon footprints.

It’s time to stop playing victim

The airline industry has been behaving like victims of circumstance for too long. Delayers, if not deniers of climate change, driving a race to the bottom with low-cost travel which gives consumers the mindset that air travel is a right not a luxury, and taking no responsibility for their role as vectors in the spread of global disease. A new era of responsible travel is coming.

Airlines must approach 2021 with granularity and flexibility, switching on and switching off routes at speed as the pandemic landscape changes or mutant strains appear, being on the front foot of protecting the world from disease, not waiting for borders to close or – worse – lobbying against.

People are desperate to travel and the industry can do a lot build its reputation and help the vaccinated cohorts find safe places with highly vaccinated or resilient populations to visit. Travel promotions may need to give their destinations a Covid rating to help decision making. The Bloomberg Covid resilience ranking (3) or the Financial Times Covid tracker (4) might be good places to start…

Author

Siân Dodwell, Chief Strategy Officer  Langland, A Publicis Health Company

References

1.      University of Aberdeen; Pana et al; Country-level determinants of the severity of the first global wave of the COVID-19 pandemic: an ecological study https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/11/2/e042034

2.      BlackRock Larry Fink 2021 Letter to CEOs January 2021. https://www.blackrock.com/uk/individual/2021-larry-fink-ceo-letter

3.      https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/covid-resilience-ranking/

4.      https://ig.ft.com/coronavirus-vaccine-tracker/

11th February 2021

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