There is considerable merit in the call by the International Air Transport Association for a global agreement on pre-flight Covid tests for international travel, in place of the inconsistent quarantine requirements that different countries follow.
These restrictions have hit the international travel and tourism industry hard. Additionally, abrupt changes in quarantine policy as announced by Britain some weeks ago add to the uncertainty and lead to cancellations.
While IATA would like its recommendation of affordable rapid antigen test results, if accepted by the country of origin and by the destination country under a globally-accepted set of standards, to be made part of the travel protocol, this may pose a problem, not the least because of the unreliability of these tests.
IATA though believes that the low cost of the tests and the speed at which they deliver a result make up for the lack of accuracy and says such an arrangement could boost confidence among travellers. Airlines battered by the pandemic have been urging governments to lift blanket restrictions that are in place in many countries.
On ground, though, many European nations facing a fresh surge in virus numbers, have stiffened protocols. The result is that the industry that had shown a hint of a recovery is facing a slump once again. The travails of the past six months have pushed airline companies worldwide into the red and many, including Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific just a few days ago, have warned they may not survive further assaults on bottom lines.
By July, the global tourism sector had lost $320 billion, and these losses have mounted since. As countries around the world realised the importance of restarting economies, airlines with robust domestic schedules such as those in China and India might have expected a revival in fortunes. But even within a country, variances in travel requirements have heightened uncertainties.
Earlier this month, the Airports Authority of India put out a 28-page advisory entitled “State-Wise Quarantine Guidelines” that underscored the problem; indeed, it revealed just how acutely India has become a Disunion of States after the Covid outbreak. If the size of the advisory itself was not testament to the confusion that prevails, its contents made this clear.
Every state and union territory appears to have its own set of rules, even as far as international arrivals are concerned, and even contiguous states follow widely divergent protocols.
Thus, an international business visitor to Bengaluru on a 48-hour trip could plan to enter the city without any restrictions but would face 14 days’ quarantine if his flight gets diverted to Thiruvananthapuram or Chennai. As far as domestic travel goes, such whimsies as allowing flights from certain states on certain days of the week, as seen not so long ago in West Bengal, throws schedules out of gear.
While public health imperatives must trump profits, an industry that employs a quarter of a billion people worldwide deserves greater consideration than it has received.