A return to a freer level of international air travel is unlikely to be possible until there is greater agreement between nations on COVID-19 testing and the vaccination documents needed to travel abroad , according to experts.
Yet almost a year and a half after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, it is still unclear when such a consensus will be reached.
“Each country wants to do its own thing and they really have to get over that and be on the same page,” said Marion Joppe, professor in the School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management at the University of Guelph.
The European Union has developed a digital certificate for residents of the block of 27 countries, but it has put in place restrictions on non-essential travel from many third countries due to concerns over COVID-19.
The various border crossing and travel restrictions imposed by countries around the world in the wake of COVID-19 have left airlines and passengers with the resulting uncertainty.
And while more people are traveling overseas today than at the start of the pandemic, passenger levels are still far below pre-pandemic levels.
A long way since 2019
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported that the world saw a 60% drop in the number of passengers who flew in 2020 compared to 2019.
In July 2021, demand for international travel was down almost three-quarters from 2019 – although IATA says traffic is improving across the world.
In Canada, airlines are hoping their industry will see clearer skies, although the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic makes it difficult to predict exactly when.
At Air Canada, optimism now reigns that the new travel rules allow international visitors – at least those who are fully vaccinated – to enter the country on non-essential travel. The change came into effect on September 7.
“We look forward to welcoming customers from around the world again,” airline spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick told CBC News via email.
Fitzpatrick said the airline saw a sharp drop in revenue during the pandemic on the international side of its business – with international passenger revenues below a tenth of what it was just two years ago in the second quarter of 2021.
WestJet told CBC News it “is working diligently to predict the balance in demand and to meet the needs of our customers” as vaccination rates rise and travel restrictions ease.
“Getting to where we need to go will require our continued focus on safely restarting travel,” WestJet spokesman Morgan Bell said in an email.
Montreal-based Air Transat is also hoping to get more people on planes after not operating any commercial flights for six months earlier this year.
“We are very happy to have been able to resume our activities … and move on to the restart phase where our activities can gradually develop,” said Air Transat President and Chief Executive Officer Annick Guérard in an accompanying press release. the publication of the latest quarterly results of the company.
“All the more so as we are impatiently awaiting a winter season which promises to be much busier than the previous one.
The airline, however, does not expect its operations to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023.
Toronto-based Porter Airlines is preparing to resume service to four U.S. cities later this month after an 18-month suspension of flights.
“We believe demand for these routes will gradually return as flights are reintroduced to our network,” Porter’s spokesman Brad Cicero told CBC News via email.
“Flights are returning in phases, reaching about 60% of 2019 capacity by October 6.”
How to move forward
The use of vaccine passports is a possible tool to encourage international travel.
The federal government has said it “recognizes that proof of vaccination credentials will support the reopening of societies and economies.”
Joseph Ali, associate director of global programs at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics in Baltimore, believes support for such vaccine literature is increasing – though it may not be “strictly required” for all travelers in the world. an immediate future.
“Until there is an adequate supply and distribution of vaccines around the world… it will not be appropriate to require vaccination passports for all passengers,” Ali said in an email.
Such a system would also depend on the recognition by countries of vaccines used outside their borders, as well as the changing circumstances of the pandemic.
“Vaccine passport systems won’t permanently solve all COVID-related travel problems, but they can help bring us closer to doing things that are important to many,” Ali said.
What about Ottawa?
Canada’s federal government, before the election was called, made a case for such a proof of vaccination system for international travel, with the government saying it intends to deliver a version by the start of the year. fall.
Each federal party has its own idea of how to safely reopen for international travel.
The Conservatives, according to their platform, would demand “rapid tests at all border entry points and airports” for all travelers, vaccinated and unvaccinated, without exception. The party says it also intends to help rebuild the country’s aviation sector.
The Liberals, meanwhile, say travelers should get vaccinated if they want to take a commercial flight.
New Democrats told CBC News that Leader Jagmeet Singh is supporting Canada in developing a national passport for vaccines to allow travel within Canada and abroad.
The Greens did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Arvind Magesan, professor of economics at the University of Calgary, said it was imperative to develop coordination between nations on vaccine passports for obvious reasons – because there is “no point in getting into a plane “if your vaccine is not recognized by where you are trying to fly to.
“It’s a really difficult problem, trying to coordinate policies between different countries,” Magesan said in an interview.
A different future?
Some observers believe the pandemic could cause permanent changes in airline travel habits.
The industry may see less business travel in the future, according to Marc-David Seidel, associate professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia.
Seidel said people have grown accustomed to using technology to do business in new ways and the benefits of not having to travel are clear to them.
“Do I really want to have to fly halfway around the world to have a four hour meeting?” Said Seidel, who sees the current moment as an opportunity to rethink what types of travel are really necessary.
Joppe of the University of Guelph, on the other hand, believes business travel will pick up eventually.
“People want to travel and our whole way of life has become one of mobility,” Joppe said.