Asia urged to play full part in sustainable global aviation recovery

The director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has urged Asia-Pacific states to further ease border measures to accelerate the region’s recovery from COVID-19.

Speaking to delegates at an aviation event in Singapore Willie Walsh (above) warned the aviation sector was recovering but there were still hurdles to be removed before business levels matched pre-pandemic figures.

“It has been a brutal two years for airlines,” he said. “But we are seeing signs of recovery now. International travel in 2021 stood at only 25% of where we were in 2019. But in the first quarter of this year, it has recovered to 48%. And indeed some parts of the world including Europe, North America, and Latin America, the recovery has reached around 60%.

“Regrettably, Asia continues to lag the recovery in 2021. International travel was only at 7% of where we were in 2019. And although it’s improved to 17% in the first quarter of this year, there is still a long way to go. And to put it into context, international travel within this region, one of the biggest and most important international markets in the world, is only at 6% of where it was in 2019.

“Things are improving, but they will not improve fast enough unless countries follow the initiative of countries like Singapore and remove the requirements for tests and quarantine for vaccinated travellers. The science supports these initiatives. We now have two years of rich data to support new decisions by governments and I believe, indeed, in IATA, we’re convinced that this science supports the removal of testing and quarantine for unvaccinated travellers from areas of high population immunity, including many parts of this region. We also believe that where mask mandates are removed for indoor environments and public transport, they should also be removed for air transport.”

Walsh added: “Asia-Pacific is playing catch-up on restarting travel after COVID-19, but there is growing momentum with governments lifting many travel restrictions,” he said. The demand for people to travel is clear. As soon as measures are relaxed there is an immediate positive reaction from travellers. So it is critical that all stakeholders, including governments are well-prepared for the restart. We cannot delay. Jobs are at stake and people want to travel.”

The Asia-Pacific region’s international passenger demand for March reached 17% of pre-COVID levels, after having hovered at below 10% for most of the last two years. “This is far below the global trend where markets have recovered to 60% of pre-crisis levels,” added Walsh. “The lag is because of government restrictions. The sooner they are lifted, the sooner we will see a recovery in the region’s travel and tourism sector, and all the economic benefits that will bring.”

Walsh urged Asia-Pacific governments to continue easing measures and bring normalcy to air travel by:

•    Removing all restrictions for vaccinated travellers.
•    Removing quarantine and COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated travellers where there are high levels of population immunity, which is the      case in most parts of Asia.
•    Lift the mask mandate for air travel when it is no longer required in other indoor environments and public transport.

“Supporting and more importantly accelerating the recovery will need a whole of industry and government approach. Airlines are bringing back the flights. Airports need to be able to handle the demand. And governments need to be able to process security clearances and other documentation for key personnel efficiently,” said Walsh.

He said there remained two “big gaps” in the Asia-Pacific recovery story: China and Japan.

“So long as the Chinese government continues to maintain their zero-COVID approach, it is hard to see the country’s borders reopening. This will hold back the region’s full recovery.

While Japan has taken steps to allow travel, there is no clear plan for the reopening of Japan for all inbound visitors or tourists. More needs to be done to further ease travel restrictions, starting with lifting quarantine for all vaccinated travellers, and removing both the on-arrival airport testing and daily arrival cap. I urge the government of Japan to take bolder steps towards recovery and opening of the country’s borders.”

Walsh also called on Asia-Pacific governments to support the industry’s sustainability efforts.

“Airlines have committed to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. A key to our success will be governments sharing the same vision,” he explained. “There are high expectations for governments to agree a long-term goal at the ICAO Assembly later this year. Achieving net zero requires everyone to shoulder their responsibility. And among the most important things that governments should do is incentivizing the production of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). Airlines have bought every drop of SAF that is available. Projects are underway that will see a rapid increase in SAF production over the next years. We see SAF contributing to 65% of the mitigation needed to achieve net zero in 2050. That will require governments to be much more proactive.”

Walsh acknowledged that there have been positive developments in Asia-Pacific. Japan has committed considerable funds for green aviation initiatives. New Zealand and Singapore have agreed to cooperate on green flights. “Singapore’s cross industry International Advisory Panel on a sustainable aviation air hub is a positive example for other states to adopt,” said Walsh. He also called on ASEAN and its partners to do more, particularly looking for opportunities in the region to expand SAF production.

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