When will we fly again?


My older sister had written a quote in her precious songbook. It mesmerised me whenever I would steal a read of it. I was aged six or seven and could not imagine what might be the meaning of: it’s not the coughing that carries you off but the coffin they carry you off in.

Long afterwards, I figured out that apart from the play on words the sentence could also mean that it’s not the disease that kills, but the medication meant to treat it. This comes to mind in the new season of near post-coronavirus economic recovery.

I pose the question about flying because I was recovering slowly and painfully from a medical intervention in the UK and was due to return to TT on the morning of March 23. It was clear from around mid-March, as radical defence measures were being put in place by governments everywhere, that people would get stranded abroad, but British Airways ignored the indications and was playing hardball, not allowing any free change of ticket or refunds for travel that had already started, and I was on the way back to TT.

So as not to lose my expensive ticket I had to wait for them to cancel me, and I was forced, therefore, to purchase a second ticket on Virgin Airlines via Barbados a few days before March 23.

At midnight on March 22, TT shut it borders to all nationals, but BA still had not cancelled the flight. As luck would have it, Caribbean Airlines cancelled the connecting flight and after an unexpected nightover in Barbados, I arrived in TT a day later. Because it is considerably cheaper to buy return rather than one-way tickets, I now have two return tickets to and from the UK with fixed October dates, but have no idea if I will be able to use them, and I cannot expect a refund.

The airline and tourism industries are massively affected by the fall-out of covid19. Air travel has tumbled by an amazing 80-90 per cent since March, when countries closed borders and social distancing and masks were introduced in an attempt to contain the virus.

Every large international crowd-based event will either have no live audience or has been postponed or cancelled. The Olympics in Japan is now scheduled for 2021, Wimbledon, the great tennis tournament, will not happen in June for the first time since WWII, Formula One racing, football, golf etc.

The Dubai Expo was supposed to draw 20 million patrons and revitalise Dubai’s ailing economy, but that too has been put on hold. The great Edinburgh Festival of arts and culture is cancelled for the first time in 70 years, which will deal a great blow to the city’s finances too. Even the Hajj to Mecca has been affected with many fewer pilgrimers.

Gradually we are realising that not everything we took for granted will return or look like it did. Travel, once the privilege of the wealthy, is something which has become so commonplace that almost everyone on earth could have the expectation of leaving their village, town, country and even continent with relative ease, except of course if you are a refugee. Long-distance air travel for foreign holidays is what all first world working people expect to do annually, and many of us think little of jumping on a plane to see children or parents living abroad, not to mention shopping and touristic trips. In a globalised world people criss-cross continents as if it were a short commute to meet or to trade. The Caribbean has largely built its economies on this norm of international travel.

Our regional partners desperately need the return of the status quo, but the likelihood of a quick rebound seems elusive.

Virgin Airlines is sacking a third of its workforce and applying for financial help. British Airways is losing 12,000 jobs, and both airlines will stop flying out of Gatwick Airport. Europe’s richest international airliner, Lufthansa, is losing $1 million per hour. United Airlines is shedding 30 per cent of staff and many other airlines are following suit. Caribbean Airlines’ offices, apart from at TT and Barbados airports, remain closed and CAL says it’s preparing to fly again as soon as borders reopen, but open borders are not guaranteed. New Zealand, for example, will remain closed to foreign arrivals for a long time yet, and we don’t know either what international safety measures will be enforced.

Planes typically must fly at 80 per cent capacity to make a profit, but social distancing on board affords only 60 per cent, which is bad business. IATA, the International Air Transport Association, is recommending regular seating, but last week customers complained over an internal UK flight with most of its seats full. With the threat of a two-week quarantine upon arrival in another country, compulsory vaccination, another wave of infections and a 54 per cent increase in airfares, quick recovery seems impossible. It could be ages before we take to the skies again in significant numbers.


"When will we fly again?"

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