31 Jul 2020

By Marcel Langeslag, Director Aviation Africa at NACO

As COVID-19 continues to impact lives, economies and societies around the world, the mitigation measures such as social distancing and travel restrictions are also taking a toll on daily operations. Indeed, with the international travel and other aspects of daily life essentially halted, the additional impact is set to trigger a global recession of significant proportions.

Whilst recovery lies some way off, in the first of two “3-Sixty” articles, I will take a brief look at three topics – the impact the virus has had on the African aviation industry; the possible road to recovery and how smart technologies may provide new opportunities to reshape the passenger experience – in a compact read of 360 seconds. 

The toll of Covid-19 on African aviation

Since Coronavirus was declared a global pandemic in March,  what started as a distinct slowdown in air traffic at African airports was reduced to almost zero within a month and has subsequently led to a cash crunch. As all eyes, turn to the effects of lifted restrictions and economic recovery, we began to model passenger traffic recovery scenarios, all of which have indicated recovery well into 2022.

This is supported by data from: the Airports Council International (ACI) which has forecast a passenger number reductions of over 32% for African airports in 2020;  the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) seat capacity estimates of 36% -62% lower than baseline forecasts; and the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) forecast of African air traffic drops of up to 51% in terms of revenue passenger kilometres (RPK) compared to 2019. This is an unprecedented crisis that threatens both livelihoods and industry.

Unsurprisingly, possible governmental stimulus packages aimed at stemming mass job losses and enabling a recovery have ramped up. Alongside talk of bailouts carriers folding, the word “consolidation" has not been far from discussions and is in fact expected in the coming months and years.

Getting on the road to recovery

Airlines and airports remain eager to restart operations particularly as restrictions and lockdowns are gradually being lifted.  But this will not happen overnight or in perfect synchronicity. All indications point to domestic travel being introduced followed by international flights with the establishment of so-called air-corridors also under discussion. To this, we must also consider however that any economic downturn may suppress demand for a period of time.

Flight tracking data for OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa (Source: FlightRadar24)



Flight tracking data for Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Source: FlightRadar24)

So what immediate actions can airlines and airports take to mitigate any obstacles on the road to recovery? The first step at this stage is for airports to ready their operations for restart and to work with airlines to restore market confidence. In the new normal, route networks will inevitably be different to the pre-Covid-19 status. The second, but parallel step, is for decision makers to work with more tailored scenario forecasting. This will be critical in supporting their planning and resource allocation considerations. Finally, there is a clear case for the use of simulation modelling of passenger flows in airports.  Applying this type of modelling in the re-activation, and possible re-configuration, of airport facilities can help ensure sufficient capacity is available to allow for increased social distancing and additional health screening.

Getting on the smart track – social distancing and health screening

It is evident that with the current crisis, the way we travel to, from and within airports will be subject to changes and new measures all aimed at preventing contamination or further spread of Covid-19. These measures – which include social distancing and health screening – will in turn influence the planning and design of airport terminals as well as the revision (and/or introduction of new) standards and recommended practices.

In addition to personal sanitation and health screening facilities being introduced, space reservations for queuing and seating areas may have to be increased. This brings with it a new set of challenges as more space is required for the same number of passengers, while the  effective capacity of existing terminals will be reduced, and more space required for new ones.
But with these changes also come the new paths to re-assess and optimise the passenger journey through the airports.  The introduction of smart technologies can be used to reduce the impact of change. Think of rapid, non-intrusive screening technologies, data-driven risk management by tracking flight origins or individual passenger journeys. As thought also turns to the ‘touchless’ or ‘touch-free’ airport, remote sensing and control technologies could play a vital hygiene role in reducing the number of physical touchpoints.

Where to from here..?

Whichever path of combination of paths the industry pursues as it emerges from the crisis, it is important that airports, airlines and their stakeholders collaborate closely with government and regulators on any future measures. This will ensure that any measures proposed or under consideration are effective, balanced and do not incur costs likely to inflict further pain on an industry taking its first steps to recovery. After all, many of the recovery, social distancing, health- and hygiene-related measures will apply to industries and businesses connected to and beyond aviation (think: public transport, shops, offices, etc), particularly where people connect.

In the next 3-sixty, I will briefly explore the role of income diversification, cargo and open borders in the Africa’s aviation industry on its way to the next normal.

References
ACI, 2020: Airport Economics Report
ACI, 2020: Policy Brief: COVID-19: Relief measures to ensure the survival of the airport industry
ISS, 29 April 2020: COVID-19 could stall Africa’s integration agenda, from: https://issafrica.org/iss-today/covid-19-could-stall-africas-integration-agenda
ICAO Air Transport Bureau, 23 April 2020: Effects of Novel Coronavirus (COVID‐19) on Civil Aviation: Economic Impact Analysis

IATA, 23 April 2020: Aviation Relief for African Airlines Critical as COVID-19 Impacts Deepen, from: https://www.iata.org/en/pressroom/pr/2020-04-23-02/#__prclt=bRYl2Z3M

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Marcel Langeslag

Director Aviation Africa

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