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News Round Up

Spain's Airline Industry body calls for PCR testing to end;

KLM starts flying Viasat-fitted 737s after installing amid Covid-19;

IATA backs WHO guidance on not requiring vaccination proof to fly.

Airline industry body in Spain calls for PCR tests for vaccinated passengers to be scrapped

Edurne Martinez

The Asociación de Líneas Aéreas is also calling for the antigen test to be accepted and for the creation of bilateral agreements with key markets such as the UK

Faced with the "most uncertain" summer in the history of aviation, a major airline industry body in Spain is calling for changes to help reactivate the sector in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Asociación de Líneas Aéreas (ALA), which represents 60 national and international airlines and whose partners carried more than 230 million passengers to Spain’s airport operator Aena’s airports in the last full year prior to the pandemic, is estimating that only 58 per cent of flights will be operated this summer compared to 2019.

But the forecast must be taken with a pinch of salt according to Javier Gándara, the president of the association. He said that, "The decision of the airlines ultimately depends on what the governments of many countries determine in terms of mobility restrictions,” and called for an end to the uncertainty to give some hope to the tourism sector.

He added that forecasts show that air traffic will not fully recover until 2023 or 2024, so the ALA considers it essential that Spain takes measures to reactivate this part of the economy that is so important for the country and regain confidence in air transport.

"Tourism will not recover without the recovery of the airlines," said Gándara. For this reason, the association proposes that Spain implements measures such as accepting vaccinated foreign tourists without the need for PCR tests and without quarantines, as competing tourist countries such as Greece have already announced.

In his opinion, Gándara says that Europe is lagging behind other domestic markets such as China or the United States, where the levels of domestic flights prior to the pandemic are expected to practically recover in the second half of the year.

Therefore, in addition to the possibility of travelling without a PCR test for those fully vaccinated, the association asks that the antigen test is accepted and, also, for the creation of bilateral agreements with the main markets that send tourists to Spain – such as the UK.

The association has also called for an extension of Spain’s ERTE furlough scheme at least until December that supported, in the month of March, more than 14,000 employees in the sector.

© Edurne Martinez

KLM starts flying Viasat-fitted 737s after installing amid Covid-19

Mary Kirby

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines is now offering Viasat’s high-speed inflight connectivity service to passengers on two Boeing 737-800s and will fit another 16 737-800s with the system by the end of the year. The installs are part a larger agreement with Viasat that will also see 21 of KLM’s Embraer E-195 twinjets equipped in time.

Installing a broadband IFC system onto any aircraft is always a notable occurrence. After all, on board Internet is considered a key amenity for modern travellers. But installing a system amid a global pandemic — and factoring in lockdowns, travel restrictions and the winter holidays — can add material complexity to the equation.

Viasat’s airline customers handle the installations, whether in-house or via their select MRO partners. The company’s high-capacity Ka-band satellite solution takes roughly three days to install on a 737, inclusive of the antenna install atop the aircraft fuselage. Don Buchman, Viasat’s vice president and general manager, commercial aviation, said that the Carlsbad, California-based satellite operator and aero ISP were able to support KLM throughout the process, remotely. With several years’ worth of history and knowledge in Ka-band satcom installs, the process went “almost perfect”, confides Buchman. “We can do most of it almost entirely remotely from a support perspective.”

All KLM aircraft earmarked for the Viasat IFC system operate European flight routes only. Having provided the Internet service free-of-charge starting 22 April for a week, KLM will initially offer three inflight connectivity packages — messaging, surf, and stream — on all Viasat-equipped aircraft, which transmit data over Viasat’s high-capacity KA-SAT satellite.

The messaging option will give all passengers 30-minutes of free text messaging via WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and WeChat, while the higher-bandwidth surf and stream options can be purchased, though clarity is awaited on the price points for KLM’s short-haul operation. Offering three tiers of connectivity service, including a free messaging tier, is intentional, and brings a level of consistency to passengers. While the Air France short-haul fleet offers Global Eagle Ku-band connectivity, Air France-KLM’s long-haul operation has been installing Gogo’s 2Ku broadband connectivity solution to Airbus A330s and Boeing 777s.

Nearly 80 wide bodies are understood to have been fitted with Gogo 2Ku to date. And these aircraft offer three tiers of Internet service to passengers. Notably, given that Air France-KLM’s Boeing 787s are fitted with Panasonic Avionics’ eXConnect Ku-band connectivity service, the airline holding company now technically has knowledge of no fewer than four inflight connectivity systems.

“Being Internet connected when on-the-go is a top priority for our customers. That’s why we’re working with Viasat to specifically define and tailor an inflight Wi-Fi approach that meets current and future IFC requirements on short- and medium-haul European flights,” says KLM executive vice president, customer service Boet Kreiken. “We believe this new collaboration will enable us to deliver more memorable connected experiences when passengers fly on Viasat-equipped KLM aircraft.”

© Mary Kirby

IATA backs WHO guidance on not requiring vaccination proof to fly

Mary Kirby

Major airline trade group, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), is urging states to comply with the World Health Organization’s latest international travel guidance, including the WHO’s recommendation not to require passengers to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of entry.

This stance considers the inequity of requiring all passengers to be vaccinated from COVID-19, including individuals from poorer countries whose vaccination programs are not as robust as in wealthy countries. Moreover, some individuals cannot take the vaccine due to medical conditions.

In its February 2021 position paper on the matter, the WHO noted that “there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission”. Considering that there is limited availability of vaccines, it said, “Preferential vaccination of travellers could result in inadequate supplies of vaccines for priority populations considered at high risk of severe COVID-19 disease.”

The WHO’s position has not changed since then. Its Emergency Committee Risk Management Recommendations, released this week, states:

Do not require proof of vaccination as a condition of entry, given the limited (although growing) evidence about the performance of vaccines in reducing transmission and the persistent inequity in the global vaccine distribution.

States Parties are strongly encouraged to acknowledge the potential for requirements of proof of vaccination to deepen inequities and promote differential freedom of movement.

IATA has been a champion of COVID-19 testing amid the pandemic, and believes that both testing and vaccination is key to opening borders. It has developed a global and standardized solution, called IATA Travel Pass, to validate and authenticate all country regulations regarding COVID-19 passenger travel requirements.

But the organization is quick to point out that IATA Travel Pass is not a vaccine passport. In a statement, IATA emphasizes that it supports the WHO’s recommendations, whilst also supporting the right of governments to open borders to the vaccinated, effectively as a temporary solution to enable industry recovery. This echo’s a statement made by Willie Walsh (the new head of IATA) earlier this month.

The airline group is certainly striking a balance in its remarks. “IATA believes that the freedom to travel across borders should not be limited to those who are able to be vaccinated,” it says flatly.

“It does, however, support governments opening borders to those who have been vaccinated and that testing should also play a key role where vaccination is not possible. Together — testing and vaccination — are key measures for states to safely reopen their borders and restore freedom of movement while managing the public health risks of COVID-19.”

The WHO’s other recommendations include implementing coordinated, time-limited, risk-based, and evidence-based approaches for health measures in relation to international traffic, and reducing the financial burden on international travellers for testing, isolation/quarantine, and vaccination. The latter problem is acute and has been reported on the challenges faced by British travellers, for instance.

“IATA firmly believes that government-mandated public health measures to manage the risks of COVID-19 should not be a financial barrier to travel,” says the organization. It notes that the high cost of PCR testing — US$100 at the low-end — coupled with the requirement for multiple tests for a single journey, “could easily make flying unaffordable for individuals and families, reversing decades of progress to make the freedom to travel more accessible”.

The WHO also wants to see vaccination prioritized for seafarers and air crews, a position wholeheartedly supported by IATA and indeed many pilot and flight attendant unions.

© Mary Kirby

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