Picture: GALLO IMAGES
Picture: GALLO IMAGES

The coronavirus has struck the world with a hard uppercut, causing some nations to completely shut down. Many businesses are shuttered, people are ordered to maintain a “safe social distance,” and governments are still grappling with the right measures to take to protect their citizens.

Through all of this, airlines have been hit hardest and earliest. The moment one country issues a travel ban, airlines are often the first victims.

Yet at the same time, airlines are on the front lines of fighting the virus, acutely aware of the risks that air travel plays in spreading disease around the world. Localised isolation efforts on the ground can only go so far and if proper airline sanitisation procedures are not implemented, a virus can rapidly jump from a marketplace in China to a school in Brazil.

Cancelling flights from high-risk areas has certainly helped to combat the spread of coronavirus, but some airlines have also played an integral role in tempering this global pandemic by taking extra measures such as disinfecting, thermal scans of passengers arriving by plane, and providing strong leadership to help people remain calm during difficult times.

Singapore Airlines has stepped up disinfecting its aircraft dating well back to January. It also made significant changes to in-flight services in an effort to minimise direct contact between the flight crew and passengers. In some cases, the airline is offering prepacked wet towelettes instead of hot towels and consistently replacing in-flight magazines. From flights originating in China, the airline also resorted to fogging those planes as coronavirus originated in the city of Wuhan.

Cathay Pacific, Singapore’s regional rival, experienced a 38% drop in passengers starting in January when the virus was first globally identified. They have since requested that 27,000 of its employees take unpaid leave to help keep the airline operational and survive until the global pandemic ends. While putting in place solid disinfection measures as well, Cathay suffered a particularly hard financial blow given Hong Kong’s struggling tourism sector.

Yet, even in light of these efforts, some airlines seem to have weathered the storm better and taken action to limit the spread of coronavirus. Despite an increase in passenger flights through the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as East-West travellers shy away from Asian airlines, the UAE’s airlines seem to be stable. That’s partly because of the early action the Emirates, and its flag carriers Etihad and Emirates, took back in January.

Dubai International Airport began thermal screening at gates as passengers arrived, ahead of other international airports. They also provided brochures with information on the coronavirus that helped travellers understand the critical nature of the coming pandemic. Airport gates were closed, secured and monitored by the Dubai Health Authority and the Airport Medical Centre right from the beginning.

Since January, Emirates seems to have taken more steps beyond the regular aviation requirements in an effort to protect the health and wellbeing of its passengers and staff.

All planes departing from Dubai now undergo extra precautionary measures, including extensive cleaning and sterilisation of all passenger compartments. This includes reviewing all surfaces, including windows, video screens, seats, armrests, controls, ventilation openings, cabinets, bathrooms, corridors, staff areas, replacing every headrest that covers each seat, and floor cleaning.

On an average day, Emirates Airlines is putting 248 planes through this comprehensive sterilisation process.

Shortly after these dramatic measures were taken in January, Abu Dhabi International Airport, home to Etihad, also began screening passengers arriving from China. Through it all, the United Arab Emirates has also suspended flights to and from outbreak zones such as Iran and Hubei province, China.

All of these efforts have been proactive and, when the dust has settled and the virus finally controlled, the world will look at these measures and recognise just how critical those early decisions were in helping to curtail the spread of Covid-19.

According to the International Air Transport Association (Iata), airlines could very well lose $29.3bn in revenue this year. Still, airlines such as Emirates and Etihad stood on the front lines from the outset knowing there would be significant losses, long before many other countries were taking coronavirus as seriously as they are now.

The two airlines were also taking these measures before other airlines finally dragged their heels to follow suit. In contrast, Qatar Airways’ inaction may have actually encouraged the spread of the virus from hotspots in Iran because of their unwillingness to suspend flights or take added measures to protect passengers and crew.

To date, Qatar Airways is yet to suspend flights and uses the same aeroplanes that fly in and out of Iran to travel throughout Europe. This could very well be a correlating factor in the spikes the world is seeing in infection rates throughout Europe, especially where Qatar Airways has flown, including Spain and Italy.

Delayed action on from airlines such as Qatar is a global health risk. Proactive approaches like those of Singapore Airlines, and their UAE counterparts Emirates and Etihad, is critical to prevent pandemics. Aeroplanes are the front line to fight the virus, and airlines must acknowledge this.  

• Badani is a political risk analyst who is currently advising companies on geopolitical risk in the Middle East.