‘Travel is impossible’: The global aviation industry is calling for borders to reopen without a vaccine or quarantines

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce is under fire for indicating a COVID-19 vaccine would be required to travel internationally. (David Gray, Getty Images)
  • The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has cautioned airlines on waiting until a COVID-19 vaccine is available, just days after Qantas said it would require one for international travel.
  • While acknowledging a vaccine was part of a “permanent solution”, the peak body urged governments to reopen borders without one and without mandatory quarantine periods.
  • Instead, IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac said widespread rapid testing before flights was “an immediate solution”.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Australia and its airlines may soon find itself at odds with the rest of the aviation industry as the world grapples with the future of travel.

Just days after Qantas CEO Alan Joyce told Nine the airline would require international travellers to be vaccinated to fly, the global aviation industry appeared to contradict him.

The peak body, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said international travel remains largely “impossible” for most people and needed to reopen sooner rather than later

“As excited as we are about vaccine development, I must be very clear on one point. We cannot wait for vaccine distribution to re-open borders for travel,” IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac told the Association’s 76th annual general meeting.

“An immediate solution already exists. We could safely open borders today with systematic COVID-19 testing.”

While acknowledging a vaccine would be part of a “permanent solution”, de Juniac said it was necessary global restrictions were relaxed first to emerge from the current “crisis”.

“Borders are effectively closed. Our freedom of movement has been severely restricted. And the impact on aviation has been catastrophic. International passenger travel is down 89%. Domestic by 43%. With just 1.8 billion people expected to travel this year, we are back at 2003 levels,” he said.

While the enormous fall in travel can be attributed to the pandemic itself, the recovery from here on out will depend on how governments and airlines adapt, the IATA argues.

Namely, “border closures, movement restrictions and quarantine measures” were chief amongst the IATA’s concerns, with de Juniac noting as many as 46 million related jobs are “in peril” without change.

“We must manage how we live with the virus. But that does not have to mean destroying aviation, risking millions of jobs, crippling economies and tearing apart the international social fabric.”

Such reforms, however, would require Australia to pare back the measures that have helped it successfully contain the virus. After all, Christmas will have come and gone without Western Australia even opening to the rest of the country, much less the world.

Currently, a little more than 6,000 international arrivals are permitted entry each week, on the condition they undertake a mandatory 14-day quarantine period. No official date has been set for when international borders will open, although Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has suggested the government’s working assumption is late 2021.

It’s unclear how much Qantas, or the federal government for that matter, would be swayed by the IATA. de Juniac argues that rapid antigen tests could be deployed with 95% accuracy in order to screen passengers before they boarded their flights in order to open up the free flow of travellers.

However, with even high-accuracy tests allowing “as few as 5 COVID-19 cases per 20,000 travellers” to travel according to de Juniac, it’s unlikely countries like Australia are going to be so willing to take the risk.

Multiple states are currently recording few or no new cases each day, with months-long lockdowns required to have achieved the feat.

But while it is unclear what strategy Australia and Qantas are going to adopt next year, the ongoing price of remaining isolated will without date continue to rise.

“COVID-19 has devastated the balance sheets of our member airlines and we need continuing government support to enable the aviation industry to restart and rebuild connectivity. Without the economic benefits that aviation delivers, the global economic recovery will be much weaker and slower,” de Juniac said.