Which approach to understand this air transport crisis

The current health crisis, along with various measures taken by the different countries, is unparalleled in the air transport history which is short enough not to have been confronted with major events such as the Spanish flu or other pandemics of large magnitude.

Recent episodes of the coronavirus responsible for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS in 2002–2003, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus or MERS in 2012, or the Ebola virus in 2014 have been contained in one region of the world and while their impact on air travel can be measured, it is in no way comparable to that of COVID-19.

Considering the current air transport crisis, three things come to mind:

First, decided, partial, conditional or total closure of the borders. It is difficult to find elements in air transport history to analyze such a phenomenon. September 11, 2001, the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano certainly caused brutal stoppages of air transport, but these were of short duration, quite when compared to the current crisis. They did not completely stop the flow of passengers on the surface of the world. The timid resumption of international traffic remains conditional on this traffic-light-like system between countries, which varies between total stoppage of flights, arrivals conditioned by quarantine or screening tests, and the complete opening of borders. This situation is likely to last for many months depending on political reactions and decisions and the emergence of a vaccine or treatment of the virus.

The economic crisis impact, as a result of the health crisis, has yet to be fully felt, but it is clearly global and is very likely to call into question the phenomenon of globalization in order to return to greater economic sovereignty. While it is certainly not possible to predict the magnitude and consequences of this crisis, it seems almost certain that it will be greater than the one in 2008 that impacted on world air transport for about 5 years.

The pandemic caused by COVID-19 should and could have been the first element cited as the cause of the situation. It certainly intervenes with the desire and need for air travel. Yet, once the conditions of health control are put in place, it does not prevent it. Thus, the impact of the pandemic on countries or regions with high domestic traffic with homogeneous conditions of health treatment seems lesser than in the case of heterogeneous measures and variations over time. Previous epidemics in air transport history may be used as a reference in reasoning on domestic traffic, but they cannot at this stage be invoked to characterize the effects on international air transport that result today from the first factor cited and probably tomorrow from the second.

France Aviation Civile Services is trying, based on its in-depth knowledge of global air transport and on long historical data, to recognize certain phenomena and apply certain patterns to the current crisis. Through various works undertaken in-house or with the help of students during the summer, FRACS is making progress in its knowledge of the global crisis and its analysis.

However, there is still a great unknown in this equation, that is the availability of a treatment or a vaccine that will mark a major inflection point in air transport statistics and introduce a little predictability in behaviours, political decisions, business or private travel. In these uncertain times, the entire team of France Aviation Civile Services remains mobilized to contribute, on its scale, to a safe, efficient, and effective resumption of air traffic.

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