Coronavirus: Travel quarantine deals further blow to stricken airlines

Coronavirus has been catastrophic for the airline industry.  The COVID-19 pandemic has grounded more than 90% of flights globally, destroyed millions of holiday and business travel plans, pushed major carriers to the brink and prompted almost 20,000 redundancies in the UK alone, with many more potentially to come. And now air passengers arriving in Britain will soon have to quarantine for a fortnight as part of a move to avoid a second peak of the coronavirus.

Image: At a stroke, the move is likely to reduce even further the trickle of passengers still travelling by air

Measures that require people to stay isolated for longer than the average holiday mean there is now even less prospect of international travellers bailing out businesses and communities.

And for British holidaymakers the restrictions will kill off the already slim prospect of foreign breaks going ahead this summer, unless they can stomach a fortnight of isolation on their return. Amid the wreckage of an episode likely to change air travel for a generation, until now there had been one tiny speck of light for British airports and operators and their prospective customers – passengers did not face any restrictions on arrival.

Aside from the very earliest days of the outbreak, when passengers were handed leaflets advising them to seek help if they had a temperature, there have been no interventions at all to address potential virus carriers arriving by air.

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:: Listen to the Daily podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Spreaker That is now set to change, with airlines having been told the prime minister will order the imposition of 14-day self-isolation period for all travellers arriving by air at UK airports. They will have to declare the address at which they are staying on a digital form and will be warned they could face spot checks organised by the Border Force.

Arrivals from the Republic of Ireland will be exempt, along with key workers such as those involved in other parts of the transport chain like shipping and road freight. When the measure will be imposed is unclear, with suggestions it may not begin for three weeks, coinciding with the potential date for easing some of the current restrictions on economic and social activity. Whenever it comes, the impact on passengers and the industry will be huge.

At a stroke it is likely to reduce even further the trickle of passengers still travelling by air. Daily arrivals at UK airports have already fallen from a 300,000-a-day average to around 15,000, a drop of 95%. The measures will lead to further pressure from airlines and airports for enhanced support for the industry.

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The government has thus far resisted calls for an industry-specific bailout, expecting shareholders in major carriers to step up before the taxpayer.

They also point to the job support furlough scheme as a significant means of offsetting the cost of near closure, but British Airways, Ryanair and Virgin Atlantic have already announced 18,000 redundancies between them. BA’s owner believes it will be 2023 before aviation returns to its pre-outbreak level, while analysts believe there may be a permanent reduction in travel as a consequence of the outbreak, which has ushered in new ways of working alongside fear of contagion.

Coronavirus: Travel quarantine deals further blow to stricken airlines

‘We’ve never faced this in airline industry’

The Foreign Office already advises against all but essential travel anywhere in the world, and UK airports have warned that social distancing measures and possible temperature checks could lead to departure queues a kilometre long. Also yet to be explained is the government’s rationale for imposing the restrictions now, having explicitly and repeatedly ruled them out earlier in the outbreak.

Official figures show that just 273 of 18.1 million arrivals were quarantined early in the outbreak – all passengers on planes from Wuhan, China, or extracted from cruise ships. Previously, ministers and experts have implied that there was little point in imposing quarantine measures as the virus was so widespread it would make little impact. The imposition now, with the outbreak in abeyance and the reinfection rate below one, may be justified as an attempt to keep it that way.

How long the measures will last, how and on what terms they will be reviewed, and what will remain of the air industry when they do, remain to be seen.

The only thing that is clear is the sky.

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