MIAMI – Just under one year since the first lockdown came into force in the UK, there seems to finally be some hope on the horizon for the country’s battered airlines.
Airlines have voiced their opinion since March 2020 against the UK government’s handling of its travel industry amid the pandemic, claiming the government has not done its utmost to avoid helping those in the sector.
There has also been much confusion over the restrictions introduced as well as the overall attitude towards the industry. Just under 11 months into the COVID-19 crisis, the UK’s government introduced hotel quarantines for passengers arriving from countries on its “red list.”
In addition, on February 5, the World Health Organization published a paper arguing that citizens who have been vaccinated should not be excluded from lockout and quarantine laws. As a result, proof of vaccination does not mean a free pass in some countries.
As governments scramble to find a solution in lieu of population-wide vaccinations, Vaccine Passport proposals from IATA and others abound and airlines such as Qatar Airways (QR), Air Serbia (JU), and Rwandair (WB) are trialing IATA’s Travel Pass. However, there are caveats to the passport rollout.
According to a report by The Economist, such a passport was considered “premature” to use for border crossings, according to the WHO study. Moreover, the Ada Lovelace Institute, a think tank that tracks vaccine passport initiatives around the world, concluded on February 17 that these are currently “not actually justified.”
The UK Government’s Timeline
Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, last month revealed his cautious plan to ease lockdown restrictions in the UK. The country has been in lockdown since January 5, and London since before Christmas. Whereas much of the general public looked for when they will be able to book a long-awaited haircut, airlines looked to May 17.
The government has stated that this is the earliest date that international travel will be able to resume. However, government officials have highlighted this date could change depending on how the virus is controlled between now and then.
Currently, UK travelers returning from high-risk countries are required to pay £1,750 to quarantine in a hotel. Those caught lying about their movements could face a £10,000 fine or 10 years in jail. Some have called this extreme, whereas the government calls it necessary to ensure arriving passengers don’t lie on their immigration forms.
It is hoped that the introduction of a “vaccine passport” would allow passengers to enter without the need to quarantine.
The idea of this passport was suggested several months ago; however, it was not known how it would work. Some suggested adding the data to the chip in a passport, whereas others called for an app. We now know the direction is leading down the path of an app on a mobile device.
It is believed that digital passports or certificates are the best way to kickstart the travel industry once again. Countries such as Israel and Greece already have digital certificates in place for their citizens.
And yet, according to The Economist article that appeared in the Science & Technology section of the print edition under the headline “Back to normality?”, critics argue that a vaccine passport will infringe on civil liberties and restrict those who have refused a vaccine. The report also mentions the above WHO study on the necessity of said Passport.
While some have voiced their now commonplace concerns around data privacy and the protection of travelers’ personal information, the report also states that public-health experts say it is too early to know whether the idea is medically sound.
British Airways to the Rescue?
Along with its London-based rival Virgin Atlantic (VS), British Airways (BA) has been at the heart of the UK’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Both airlines have flown crucial PPE into the country, and are now vital players in the distribution of the vaccine. BA also operated significant numbers of repatriation flights on behalf of the UK’s government at the start of the pandemic.
According to Cityam.com, the airline is now at the forefront of the UK’s efforts to kickstart international travel. BA is to launch its own vaccine passport. It says it will also be ready for the resumption of international travel on May 17. Those who have had two doses of the coronavirus vaccine will be asked to log their details in BA’s existing app.
Currently, the airline is trialing the VeriFly vaccine passport system, with plans to introduce it when the ban of international travel lifts in May.
Newly appointed CEO Sean Doyle says, “I think people who’ve been vaccinated should be able to travel without restriction. Those who have not been vaccinated should be able to travel with a negative test result.” Last week, Irish flier Ryanair (FR) launched its own in-app vaccine passport initiative.
As per the City A.M. report, BA has managed to strike a deal with a PCR test provider allowing passengers to get a test for £33. The airline has seen booking numbers surge since the announcement of the UK government’s timeline. This week also saw BA hint that it is considering using widebody aircraft on its European destinations this year due to demand.
There is definitely hope on the horizon for the British airlines, but any optimism should be met with some caution. The last year has taught everyone how quickly things can change, but hopefully, the travel industry can now just look forwards.
Featured image: British Airways G-STBK Boeing 777-336(ER). Photo: Ervin Eslami/Airways