JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia and the Middle East will feel the damaging economic impact of the coronavirus disease pandemic on the aviation sector for many years to come, according to a leading global industry organization.
And the only way to help the recovery is to eliminate quarantine measures and introduce systematic testing of passengers, said the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
The latest figures issued by the IATA forecast global airlines to lose a total of $157 billion this year and next, with those in the Middle East set for 2020 losses amounting to $7.1 billion, and $3.3 billion in 2021.
“Saudi Arabia, just like other countries, was impacted a lot because of its large networks and large carriers that are operating not by Saudi carriers only . . . Saudi Arabia has around 94 international carriers flying in and out of the country, and all those were stopped,” Muhammad Ali Albakri, IATA regional vice president for the Middle East and Africa, told Arab News.
He pointed out that due to its strategic geographical position the Middle East had a high degree of connectivity, with 1,060 routes as of April 2019.
All flights in, out, and within Saudi Arabia were grounded in March. While domestic flights restarted in May and Riyadh has reported that the volume of traffic has recovered to nearly 60 percent, international flights are not due to restart until January at the earliest.
As a result, IATA said that Saudi Arabia’s air connectivity score this year dropped by96 percent, which was the biggest in the region and compared to 89 percent in the UAE.
The negative impact of COVID-19 on aviation revenues and passenger demand will be felt for years, the association added.
It predicted that the Middle East’s revenues for 2021 would improve by 43 percent — compared to 2020 — but would still be down 16 percent from the peak before COVID-19, equating to about $68.5 per passenger.
“The forecast for 2021 is better than 2020 but would not be enough because it is expected to remain negative in the territory and revenues, due to delays in anticipated recovery that was expected in the second half of 2020, but did not happen,” Albakri said.
One of the ways in which the region could speed up the economic recovery from COVID-19 would be to eliminate quarantine measures and adapt systematic testing of passengers, IATA said.
Sixteen countries in the Middle East have opened their borders to regional and international air travel, but nine of these still have quarantine measures in place, which IATA said equates to a closed border.
“Reopening borders safely is a must, it’s no longer an alternative, it really has to happen and has to happen quickly. Quarantine cannot work, countries cannot continue to rely on closing their borders, or opening the borders but requiring quarantines,” Albakri added.
IATA is calling for the systematic testing of passengers without the need for quarantine on arrival, which will enable governments to safely open borders and help their economies to recover from the impact of the pandemic and control the spread of the disease.
“We are advocating systematic testing is the safe alternative to reopen borders; testing that is scalable, affordable, accurate, and fast in delivering the results is the way forward,” Albakri said.
The association noted that the Middle East’s high level of connectivity would also help aviation companies play a key role in the transportation of COVID-19 vaccines worldwide. In order for this to happen, it said governments in the region needed to work closer together and adopt internationally accepted measures and procedures.
“Countries in the region have to start working together to support the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, not only to the need of the region’s countries and populations but also to act as a shipping hub between East and West to help vaccines to be transported safely and securely around the world,” Albakri added.
He said that IATA was working with all countries in the Middle East directly, and in cooperation with the International Civil Aviation Organization and the Arab Civil Aviation Organization, to merge paths and efforts to adopt a unified methodology, and that a proposal had been prepared for Arab transport and health ministers to take onboard.