People look at the arrivals board at Gatwick airport. Airlines called for an end to restrictions on vaccinated travelers and for common health protocols at borders. Image Credit: AP

Boston: Global airlines on Tuesday wrapped up their first meeting since COVID-19 brought their industry to its knees, voicing optimism about pent-up demand but desperate for governments to harmonize disjointed border rules to avoid slipping back into recession.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which groups 290 airlines, said confusion over travel restrictions were holding back the industry’s fragile recovery after the pandemic plunged air travel into its worst ever downturn.

“People want to fly. We’ve seen strong evidence of that,” said Director General Willie Walsh. “They can’t fly because we have restrictions that are impeding international travel.” IATA expects international travel to double next year compared with the depressed levels seen during the pandemic and reach 44 per cent of pre-crisis 2019 levels. In contrast, domestic travel is tipped to reach 93 per cent of the pre-pandemic levels.

The trade group, which includes dozens of state-owned carriers, blamed that gap on wide variations in entry rules and testing requirements in the top 50 air travel markets.

Even some of the airline and leasing company leaders trying to attend the industry’s annual gathering in Boston were unable to travel or had to carve out extra time for quarantine.

Call for common protocols

Airlines called for an end to restrictions on vaccinated travelers and for common health protocols at borders, though global coordination in aviation tends to move at a deliberate pace.

“Frankly, governments haven’t made it easy for airlines or for the traveling public to understand what the rules are to fly,” said Joanna Geraghty, president of JetBlue which hosted the gathering in a hotel shared with domestic tourists.

Even so, the head of Dubai’s Emirates, who has been among the most bullish executives on the prospects for recovery once restrictions end, said bookings in markets that were reopening like Britain and the United States had “gone up exponentially.” “That reflects a bow-wave of demand that we are seeing everywhere,” its president Tim Clark said. “The demand for air travel will restore itself... sooner rather than later.”

Atlantic test

Airlines were buoyed by the Biden administration’s plan to reopen the United States in November to air travelers from 33 countries including in Europe on the vital trans-Atlantic run.

But airlines left the Boston gathering as they had arrived, with severely strained balance sheets, and Clark said most would remain risk-averse and focused on recouping cash for 2-3 years.

IATA warned serious challenges remained for carriers, while venting frustration at airports and other suppliers for not doing enough to share the pain inflicted by the crisis.