FLYING IN THE TIME OF COVID

Published January 30, 2022
Illustration by Radia Durrani
Illustration by Radia Durrani

They say that time flies, but these past two years have surely felt never-ending. As the world quarantined at home, aviation was one of the industries that were hit the hardest. While airlines around the world struggled, the situation in Pakistan was worse than many others. Is the hardest part over? We journey back and look at what may come next…

Travel has been used as a metaphor by many storytellers. Characters often set off on physical journeys and have spiritual journeys along the way. Their world, or how they see it, transforms in the process.

The story of Covid-19 also cannot be told without travel — specifically air travel. It all started with a virus spreading across China and the world by unaware passengers, who became its first carriers. Millions travelled out of Wuhan to celebrate the Lunar New Year in 2020, but the celebration soon turned sour. Just two days before the festivities started, strict restrictions were placed in Wuhan. But the damage had already been done and the story had only just begun.

According to a New York Times report, thousands of people would fly out of Wuhan to cities around the world. Popular destinations included New York, where 900 people would fly to every month and Sydney, where 2,200 people would fly to. A whopping 15,000 would land in Bangkok, the most popular destination and the city where the first known overseas case appeared in mid-January. The same report says that, according to researchers, about 85 percent of infected travellers went undetected. But they were still contagious.

The virus continued to spread, and lockdowns and travel bans began.

As some of the busiest airports around the world started wearing a deserted look, a debate about what to do dragged on in Pakistan. Meanwhile, international passengers continued to come in.

One is tempted to say that the rest is history except, unfortunately, this is still an ongoing reality. Aviation industries around the world are still facing the catastrophic effects of the pandemic, and Pakistan is no different.

While economies have struggled globally over the past two years, no sector has been hit as hard as aviation. When the virus first started to spread, disrupting lives and kick-starting global lockdowns, airlines grounded their fleet. Gulf airlines got rid of their crew because they could; in other countries, where sacking employees in the middle of a pandemic was not possible, staff was given breaks or furloughed.

At one point, Dubai World Central airport, which was in the process of cementing its place as the global hub of aviation, was left with no flights other than a few cargo airlines. So many planes around the world needed parking space that airline executives struggled to find solutions to this unique problem caused by the virus forcing everyone to stay at home. So planes were parked on airport aprons, taxiways and deserted airfields.

Sanitisation at the Islamabad Airport | Mohammad Asim/White Star
Sanitisation at the Islamabad Airport | Mohammad Asim/White Star

It was not always smooth sailing either. In the summer of 2020, Lufthansa sent six Boeing 747-400s to park at Twente Airport, a small Dutch airport. But when the airline wanted the aircrafts back, Netherland’s Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate said that the airport’s infrastructure was not fit for the takeoff of large aircrafts. The aircrafts were allowed to fly out after a one-off agreement was reached.

In Pakistan, the flight suspensions started coming into effect around March 2020, when the government introduced stricter measures and clamped down on flights by completely shutting down air travel. Airblue was the first Pakistani carrier that decided to suspend flights altogether in April 2020, followed by Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and Serene Air.

Later on, Serene and PIA resumed their domestic flight operations slowly under strict rules, with cabin crew looking more like they were heading to operation theatres rather than aircrafts. Air Sial, Pakistan’s newest airline, also put its launch plans on hold and eventually started flight operations only in December 2020.

These past two years took global aviation by surprise. Vaccinations, booster shots and additional research have helped the industry slowly take off again. But with vaccine hesitancy, virus variants and mounting financial losses for airlines still being unpredictable variables, it would be wise to expect some turbulence ahead.

Pakistan’s aviation industry runs on its flights to Saudi Arabia. This single route is the most profitable and rewarding one for all Pakistani airlines operating internationally. But, during 2020, international travellers were barred from performing Hajj. There were also no Umra flights from Pakistan.

WHEN TIME REFUSES TO FLY

A file photo shows Aviation Secretary Hassan Nasir Jamy checking coronavirus screening arrangements at Islamabad International Airport | Mohammad Asim/White Star
A file photo shows Aviation Secretary Hassan Nasir Jamy checking coronavirus screening arrangements at Islamabad International Airport | Mohammad Asim/White Star

As airlines around the world faced Covid-19’s impact, governments supported struggling carriers by extending furlough schemes and waiving dues and charges, with some countries even giving carriers state aid. However, the same treatment was not meted out for Pakistani airlines by the government. “In Pakistan, it was the opposite,” says a senior employee at a private airline. He adds that, during the pandemic, even routine procedural matters became more difficult and saw long delays.

Frustrations of industry insiders have been mounting since before the virus started wreaking havoc on travel around the world. Pakistan’s national carrier is still dealing with the consequences of a fiery, ill-advised, June 2020 parliament speech, which led to the European Union Aviation Safety Agency’s (EASA) decision to suspend PIA’s flight operations to and from European Union (EU) member countries — a decision that continues to hold today.

And while PIA has been unable to fly to EU member countries, regardless of Covid-related policies, the pandemic also took away any illusion of financial security. Pakistan’s aviation industry runs on its flights to Saudi Arabia. This single route is the most profitable and rewarding one for all Pakistani airlines operating internationally. But, during 2020, international travellers were barred from performing Hajj. There were also no Umra flights from Pakistan.

Workers and labourers employed in the Gulf, who often travel between Gulf countries and Pakistan, were also sent back home on one-way tickets, only adding to the airlines’ troubles. Things were so bad that, according to insiders, there were very real concerns about PIA’s ability to even survive the pandemic.

By April 2020, the Pakistani civil aviation regulator allowed airlines to operate 60 percent of their pre-Covid-19 schedules. Airlines resumed domestic flights, running them at only around 40 to 45 percent capacity, leaving the remaining seats empty. This was another huge blow to the revenue; airlines do not make much money from domestic travel. But since the staff was getting paid anyway, and aircraft lease payments were being made as usual, resuming operations made financial sense.

Airblue grabbed this opportunity. It opened up with maximum capacity in the market, putting to work the 10 planes it had sitting idle. At one point, it was operating five flights daily on the Karachi-to-Islamabad route and four on the Karachi-to-Lahore route. The fares were also kept very low, starting at 4,500 rupees (the same one-way ticket cost approximately 36,000 rupees before the pandemic). This not only started a price war that helped a lot of passengers to travel but also brought much-needed cash-flow for airlines that were sitting idle.

Other than catering to domestic Pakistanis, PIA played its part by bringing back Pakistanis stranded around the world. It was a long process, but thousands of Pakistanis were repatriated back to Pakistan, from countries such as the United States and Australia, where a PIA aircraft had never flown to before. Multiple crews would fly off on these repatriation flights, so the aircraft could be flown back without any of the crew having to disembark.

Eventually, international travel restrictions also eased.

There seems to be emphasis on rethinking some policies as well. Earlier this week, EU member states recommended changing the way Covid-19 travel rules are applied in the bloc.

FAILURE TO LAUNCH

Nepalese climbers arrive at the Islamabad International Airport | Mohammad Asim/White Star
Nepalese climbers arrive at the Islamabad International Airport | Mohammad Asim/White Star

As international travel began carefully and hesitantly reopening, the airlines’ troubles were still far from over. A big challenge, particularly for cash-strapped airlines, was the cost of quarantine restrictions. These costs included bills for prolonged hotel quarantine stays at designated hotels upon return. During the ‘downtime’, staff were paid to sit idle in a hotel room. Pilots who had flown over to any international airport could only fly again after two weeks of quarantine.

On top of that, in the beginning, airlines were restricted to only carrying up to a 60 percent passenger load, with the rest of the seats remaining empty, and with just a 20 percent flight schedule. This meant fewer flights, fewer passengers and no additional revenue, because the fares were set at pre-Covid levels.

Airfares did eventually increase. And while the pandemic changed air travel in many ways, one of the most significant changes was the high price tag of international travel. Strict quarantine requirements meant that travellers had to spend thousands of additional dollars at hotels, before being allowed to finally step foot in their destination and breathe a sigh of relief (behind their masks, of course).

But as Covid-19 spread in waves, the requirements also changed. As cases would rise, quarantine requirements would be made stricter, and people would rush to change their flights and travel before the changes came into effect.

The requirements have also not been consistent. For example, Saudi Arabia placed Pakistan on its ‘red list’, making it mandatory for Pakistanis to go to a third ‘safe country’ — and spend additional money on visas, hotels, quarantines and, not to forget, add additional days to their trip — before making it to their actual destination.

This resulted in PIA rushing to get permission to fly to Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan. Shortly after, Sharjah was deemed ‘safe’, and so PIA assigned its wide-body aircraft, with over 300 seats, to a city where it is normally tough to fill a small 180-seat Airbus A320. Pakistan remained on the receiving end of such restrictions and suffered a lot.

Travellers at Heathrow Airport, London | Reuters
Travellers at Heathrow Airport, London | Reuters

On the other hand, the country curiously extended a metaphorical red carpet to airlines coming from countries where the Delta variant was spreading like wildfire. Between December 2020 and January 2021, thousands of passengers were allowed to come to Pakistan from the UK, mostly on British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. A vast majority of people were not coming on any emergency trip, but to attend weddings and other events.

A senior PIA employee shares the befuddlement about such decisions. “I fail to understand why the Civil Aviation Authority [CAA] and National Command Operation Centre [NCOC] were so lenient and kind towards the British airlines,” he says. He adds that everyone knows that if the reverse were true, the UK would ban travel from Pakistan immediately.

But some good news also made its way to Pakistan by air in 2021. As vaccination programmes rolled out around the world, vaccines arrived in Pakistan from China on special PIA flights. Vaccinations have continued to arrive under the Covax programme also, donated by countries such as the US.

The vaccine kick-started a new era for air travel. But it has brought with it different requirements, such as PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, with some countries requiring passengers to arrive at airports several hours before their flights to get tested.

Still, it is inarguably a triumph that travel has bounced back. But unfortunately, just as travel was picking up again, 2022 started with the Omicron variant spreading. As people around the world were preparing to finally see their families for Christmas and the New Year, nearly 8,000 flights were cancelled during the last weekend in December 2021.

The new variant is highly transmissible and is quickly spreading across the world and Pakistan. But it should not change much, according to a statement issued by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). The statement said that the aircraft cabin remains “a very low risk environment for contracting Covid-19, even though Omicron appears to be more transmissible than other variants in all environments.”

There seems to be emphasis on rethinking some policies as well. Earlier this week, EU member states recommended changing the way Covid-19 travel rules are applied in the bloc.

According to a European Council statement, under the new recommendation, Covid-19 measures should be applied taking into account the status of the person instead of the situation at regional level, “with the exception of areas where the virus is circulating at very high levels.”

One hopes that this would result in good news for Pakistani travellers who are vaccinated.

LOST OPPORTUNITIES

Saudis keeping social distance wait for their turn to check-in their baggages at the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh | Reuters
Saudis keeping social distance wait for their turn to check-in their baggages at the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh | Reuters

While there is no doubt that the pandemic has been devastating for the global aviation industry, the current state of Pakistan’s aviation industry cannot be attributed to the pandemic alone.

Airline employees say that the mess that we are currently in is in large part due to poor planning. Citing an example, one employee says that multiple airports in Pakistan are going through runway upgradation work now. While the pilots and crews recognise that this is important work, they cannot help but wonder why it was not done in the months during which the airports were practically not functional.

Another example presented itself after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan last year. Airlines from around the world came to Pakistan to fly out thousands of Afghans from Kabul or Islamabad. Our airlines could have provided competitive pricing and earned some much-needed revenue from these flights, but they failed to do so.

Of course, pricing was not the only issue. According to one (conservative) estimate, 50 flights came to Pakistan and flew Afghan passengers to Europe. If Pakistani carriers flew only half the number of Afghans who headed to European destinations via Pakistan, that would mean millions of dollars in revenue.

“We sat at the Islamabad Airport, looking at all these colourful aircrafts from different countries coming and taking passengers, but could not do anything because we were not allowed [to fly to Europe],” says an executive from a private carrier.

While there have been losses around the world, airlines are also picking up steam again.

Many airlines had to downsize to cope with the pandemic. Emirates was short of cabin crew and cockpit crew even before the pandemic, but it still sacked many more when the pandemic began. The entire Airbus A380 fleet of airlines around the globe was parked, and there were rumours that they might not come back to service again. But now we see Emirates, Qatar, British Airways, Asiana Airlines and many other airlines are bringing their fleet back to active duty.

In Pakistan, the losses were mainly from low revenue, cancellation costs, lease and interest payment costs and a free-falling rupee. And then came the cost of sustaining a workforce. These costs exist elsewhere as well, but while in many countries airlines bore it with government support, in Pakistan airlines managed it from their own pockets. Airblue, for example, slashed salaries, with senior staff taking up to a 40 percent pay cut.

Now the airline’s yield is better because they are still enjoying the benefits of these cost adjustments. PIA used this opportunity to not only streamline salaries but also rationalise its human resources. It also introduced a voluntary separation scheme (VSS) and offloaded 2,000 staff members.

When asked about the first two years of the pandemic, a PIA staff member says that the airline barely survived. “And it is a very big achievement from the perspective of an airline that is bankrupt,” he adds.

“We managed to offset initial losses with the help of high revenue from repatriation flights,” he says. “But now we have a huge task of bringing our idle fleet to operational position so we can fly them. But we do not have the time or money for fleet modernisation efforts so we can move forward with aircrafts that suit our requirements and demand.”

TAKING FLIGHT (AGAIN)

Dr Faisal Sultan receives a consignment of Covid-19 vaccines from China at Nur Khan Airbase | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star
Dr Faisal Sultan receives a consignment of Covid-19 vaccines from China at Nur Khan Airbase | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star

Like many around the world, Abdullah Hafeez Khan, PIA’s spokesperson, has accepted Covid-19 as the new normal. He believes that the fact that airlines did not impose drastic restrictions when Omicron started spreading proves that aviation has learnt to live with the virus.

“Omicron is the litmus test of this idea,” he says. “You do not see the sort of panic that was there in 2020. So airlines continue to adjust their frequencies and continue bringing their grounded fleet back to life.”

Khan also says that the airline is geared up to get the EASA inspections process done so it can begin flying to Europe again. He expects some major developments on this front very soon. “We are busy doing test flights of our aircraft that were standing idle for months. And hope that the Saudi Arabia flight reopening will provide the break that we need,” he says.

The airline executives interviewed for this story expect that things will start going back to pre-Covid levels in the third quarter of this year.

As we enter the third year of the pandemic, a growing number of voices also seem to be urging world leaders to rethink travel bans. Last week, IATA stressed that governments should accelerate the relaxation of travel restrictions as Covid-19 wanes. The organisation called for removing travel barriers, including quarantine and testing, for those who have been fully vaccinated with a World Health Organisation (WHO)-approved vaccine. Earlier this month, the WHO also recommended that countries lift or ease Covid-related travel restrictions.

With global aviation apparently ready to take off, one hopes Pakistani aviation will also soar as we learn to live, and travel, in this new normal.

The writer is a freelance journalist and is currently a consulting editor for Pakistan Aviation, an aviation news website. He tweets @TahirImran

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 30th, 2022

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