The coronavirus pandemic has changed the air travel dynamics. Air travellers, either on local or international trips, will now have to sacrifice all forms of comfort to move from point A to B safely. WOLE OYEBADE writes.
For a long time, air travel was regaled as the safest, yet the fastest mode of modern transportation. As a business that hinges money on time, it was possible for travellers to be airborne within an hour of leaving their homes be at their destination.
Air travel made it possible for a lot of business executives to sleep in Lagos, yet work in Abuja or Port Harcourt, and still returned home for early dinner. For some, it was Lagos-Accra-Lagos on commercial flights daily. In one hour, over 400km is traversed and safely arrived at the destination. It was the trio of good speed, affordable comfort, and safe travel at its best!
But that seem to have changed, and permanently so too. With the dawn of the coronavirus disease and extra premium on medical safety, even air travellers, like road users, can as well agonise on spending six hours or more to execute one-hour travel distance.
In compliance with the new safety protocols of both the health and aviation regulatory authorities, the beleaguered local operators are foregoing erstwhile speed of passenger facilitation, ease of access, customer experience and comfort, just for one item: safety. And after three months of lockdown, local air travellers will soon realise that instead of getting better, the air travel business just took a turn for the worse!
It is not by accident that the coronavirus knock-on effects are felt harder in the air travel business. Indeed, air travel globally helps the virus to spread faster. Government’s tardiness at curtailing the virus is not better.
Recall that the Nigerian index case only arrived late February this year. A month later, the airspace had to shut down to cut back the spread from about 130 positive cases. A month without commercial flights, active cases swelled beyond 2,000 as the virus continued to explode. May ending had 12,000 active cases. About a month later, the figures have ballooned and closed in on 27,000 positives.
The grim milestone notwithstanding, neither the airspace nor the economy could continue to be on lockdown. Yet, it did not assuage the threat or volatility of the air travel industry. Therefore, fresh measures had to be introduced into aviation protocol, but in a manner that gave priority to safety only.
Physical distancing, no meals on board
When the airlines resume in a matter of days from now, travellers will find that the airport terminals have been reconfigured. It is no longer going to be free access or crowd friendly. Right from some of the car parks are new markings to demarcate and enforce physical distancing and passenger separation.
For a start, the Federal Government had since restricted flight operations to only five airports – Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Enugu and Kano – for full effect. The Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), also hinted that only the travelling public would be allowed access into the terminal area. In fact, seats at the departure lounge of the Murtala Muhammad International Airport, Lagos, have been streamlined to about 500 to avoid crowding.
It means the terminals will no longer have VIP escorts, welcome parties of friends and family, trolley boys, harassing cab operators and even fake travel agencies. Good riddance! Although work has not been completed at all the airports, fillers suggested that the ambience will not be the same again. It is to allow dozens of specially trained health officials to conduct multiple screening and testing of both departing and arriving passengers.
Similarly, Air Peace airline has scrapped meal services on board to reduce crew to passenger contacts. More local carriers are expected to follow.
Travellers to arrive three or five hours ahead
Unlike in the past when departing passengers on local flights were mandated to arrive at least an hour before departure time, the new routine is now three hours. International passengers, when their operations resume much later, will have to be at the airport five hours before departure.
Early arrivals are to ensure that all protocols, including safety markings, social distancing, hand sanitising, baggage decontamination, scanning of personal items and others are fully complied with. And should any of the processes, protocols or equipment go wrong, as they always do, then more time and attendant delays could be expected without much complaint from the passengers.
Flights spacing, longer turnaround time
The same physical distancing rule will apply to aircraft too. According to FAAN, no two airlines will depart at the same time. Perhaps, the local airlines will now see the wisdom in code-sharing and interlining partnership arrangement.
The FAAN Managing Director, Capt. Rabiu Yadudu said the rationale behind the flight spacing was not to disrupt any of the airline’s schedules, but to ensure total safety of passengers, airline staff and others within the airport environment.
It implies that airlines would have to follow a strict schedule, which sounded utopian even when operations were normal. Nigerian airlines were not known for on-time departure. But how much that will change shall be seen.The Country Manager, Nigeria & West Africa, Qatar Airways, Kennedy Chirchir, agreed that the ‘new normal’ of the industry would mean a total paradigm shift. Chirchir said the development would affect airline preparations, check-in preparations, together with how agencies interacted with customers and airlines.
“We are moving to the digital space where physical interaction would be reduced drastically. Most of the operations will be on a digital platform. There will be more requirements in terms of the turnaround of aircraft. Before now, it takes about one hour for aircraft to turn around but now it may take as long as two or three hours because there would be stricter checks. These will happen but will not stop people from travelling,” he said.
No face mask, no boarding
The Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, affirmed that all passengers must comply strictly with the directive on wearing face masks before entering the airport terminals, while the aviation authorities will provide alcohol-based hand sanitisers.
At the Air Peace airlines’ section of the General Aviation Terminal (GAT), in Lagos, full-body decontamination equipment had also been installed to cleanse all travellers.
The Chairman of the airline, Allen Onyema, said they had devised a new boarding system which will not only minimise contacts inside the aircraft, but help maintain the health guidelines instituted by the health authorities.
“The Business Class will board last because you don’t want them to be seated and people are passing through them to go to economy. Remember, we are going to give passengers face masks and we will provide face shields. With all this, you cannot get COVID-19,” he said.
Travellers to pay more for less
All of the foregoing has their cost implications, and passengers should as well brace up for a new regime in ticket fares. Besides, FAAN has raised Passenger Service Charge (PSC) by 100 per cent. FAAN in a memo, notified airlines that effective August 1, 2020, PSC rate will increase from N1,000 to N2,000 for domestic flight passengers and from the former $50 to $100 for international travellers.
The Chief Operating Officer of one of the local carriers told The Guardian that the times were indeed different, with fresh safety hurdles for operators to comply with. He said: “It is surely going to be a tough call for all. First, we are just resuming after three months, yet the coronavirus is still out there. The traffic is going to come back gradually, but you also don’t want to scare them with high costs. Yet, we have to sustain our operations. I don’t know exactly what the percentage will be, but I’m sure we all will have to share the burden,” he said.
A stakeholder, Akin Williams, said the increase was coming at a time when every aspect in the aviation business was grappling with the impact caused by the coronavirus pandemic on the sub-sector.
Williams said: “In these pandemic and economic hard times, is it the right time for FAAN or any agency to be increasing statutory fees? I don’t think so. Rather, this should be the time to reduce the high cost of operations in Nigeria and to encourage air travels.
“And the increase is not a single digit increase but it is 100 per cent; domestic from N1000 to N2000, and foreign from $50 to $100. These are massive increases and really should be revisited.
“Of course the airlines will do their best to pass this directly to the customers, who are already struggling financially. And to think this is being proposed for implementation in less than two months in August is very disturbing,” he said.