The world has changed drastically since coronavirus disease (COVID-19) became a pandemic. It has already complicated air travel, and here is an idea of what awaits international arrivals as airport authorities intensify surveillance. WOLE OYEBADE reports.
Laurel Chor is an international traveller that has just landed in Hong Kong. She flew from Paris via London on a British Airways (BA) flight. Her travel experience and reception at the Hong Kong International Airport showed the emerging dynamics of travel protocol that may last as long as the new coronavirus.
Paris to London leg of the journey was without difficulty despite the ravaging effects of the new disease. But inwards Asia was a completely different scenario. All disembarking passengers must undergo COVID-19 tests that will last several hours and the negative cases proceed on 14-day quarantine under strict supervision of health officials. Call it the new world order, and you will not be wrong.
Strict safety protocols are already in place for many national airlines and it begins at pre-boarding. Some airports are already practicing social distancing and encouraging hospital-like cleanliness. London Heathrow has signage across all its terminals reminding passengers to distance themselves at least two metres from others and to wash their hands regularly. The use of electronic check-in and passport control are getting accelerated, as airports look for ways to avoid unnecessary interactions between people.
Hong Kong International Airport is already testing full-body sanitising booths that spritz sanitiser on you for 40 seconds, while avoiding the face. The airport authority confirmed that while these devices are currently being test-run for staff, it might use them on passengers in the future.
Airlines are making face masks mandatory for both crew and passengers. In fact, all cabin crew for Qatar Airways will wear PPE suits over their uniforms from now on, while passengers will be required to wear face masks or coverings from May 25. Korean Air is providing cabin crew with same protective gowns and goggles, which are either discarded after each flight or sanitised before reuse.
Indeed, mandatory face mask is among the multi-layered safety guidelines issued by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) this week, though the body is in opposition to onboard physical distancing and quarantine of passengers on arrival.
Not for Hong Kong and many cities just yet. Chor on arrival at Hong Kong filled in a quarantine order and a health declaration. All guests are to download an app, receive a tracking bracelet, and have them registered with functional phones. It is also mandatory for all to have a thermometer. You either have one or get one as a gift. Everything had to be detailed, and forms already pre-packaged in a folder.
She went on through immigration and got her bags as normal. On the other side all the travellers were directed onto buses and young men in full protection gear helped load their bags onto the bus.
“We were given bright orange lanyards to be marked as people to be tested. The testing and waiting take place in different giant halls at Asia World Expo. A tag associated with our test would eventually be clipped to our lanyard.
“After dropping off our bags in one place and getting luggage tags; we got back on the bus as were dropped off at another facility. There we stood in line to get our testing packs. A health worker gave us our tag number, our packs, and explained how to conduct the self-test.”
The test is very simple but eight hours of waiting for the result is not. Everyone first sat and watched a detailed helpful video on how to conduct the self-test from deep-throat saliva and spit in private booths.
From there, all were relocated to a big hall with numbered and distanced individual tables with chairs. Different flights are assigned different rows. Each table comes with a trash bag and a couple of information sheets. To fill the void, sandwiches and bottled water were served. It is going to be a long wait!
But, “there is an atmosphere of patient cooperation. We are all Hong Kong residents returning home, who got on our planes knowing though vaguely what was ahead of us upon arrival, including the mandatory two-week quarantine.
“Here people work collectively to get local transmission to zero. In France I felt like people saw the virus as an abstract lottery, believing they just need to follow government guidelines as best as they can and hope for the best.
“I guess sometime in the hour or so between getting my tracking bracelet and receiving my test kit, someone had typed in my personal information, printed it out, and inserted it into my personalised kit bag,” Chor narrated via her twitter handle.
Indeed, the system demonstrated a well-organised and efficient system of a modern airport and a government determined to ward off the spread of coronavirus. It is not difficult to see why the Hong Kong administration is taking stringent measures to welcome residents only. Hong Kong’s COVID-19 cases had all been imported from abroad. About half came from United Kingdom.
Chor tested negative after over seven hours of waiting and off she went to quarantine in her home. Further testing will be done a week later. However, breaking the quarantine rules or removing the tracking bracelet could earn her six months jail term and fine up N1.44 million ($3,225).
“A child of necessity” as stakeholders have described the development, though not economically healthy to encourage air travel and tourism that have for long pride selves as the business of freedom.
IATA reiterated its opposition to social distancing on board aircraft and quarantine measures on arrival. Quarantine measures, according to the body, are obviated by the combination of temperature checks and contract tracing. Temperature screening reduces the risk of symptomatic passengers from traveling, while health declarations and contact tracing after arrival reduce the risk of imported cases developing into local chains of transmission.
Social distancing on board or leaving the middle seat open is obviated by the wearing of face coverings by all on board on top of transmission reducing characteristics of the cabin (everybody is front facing, air flow is from ceiling to floor, seats provide a barrier to forward/aft transmission, and air filtration systems that operate to hospital operating theatre standards).
IATA’s April survey of recent air travellers showed that 86 per cent were somewhat or very concerned about being quarantined while traveling, and 69 per cent of recent travellers would not consider travelling if it involved a 14-day quarantine period.
IATA’s Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, said even in the best of circumstances, this crisis would cost many jobs and rob the economy of years of aviation-stimulated growth. So, to protect aviation’s ability to be a catalyst for the economic recovery, “we must not make that prognosis worse by making travel impracticable with quarantine measures. We need a solution for safe travel that addresses two challenges. It must give passengers confidence to travel safely and without undue hassle.
“And it must give governments confidence that they are protected from importing the virus. Our proposal is for a layering of temporary non-quarantine measures until we have a vaccine, immunity passports or nearly instant COVID-19 testing available at scale,” de Juniac said.
IATA’s proposal for a temporary risk-based layered approach to provide governments with the confidence to open their border without quarantining arrivals includes preventing travel by those who are symptomatic with temperature screening and other measures, addressing the risks of asymptomatic travelers with governments managing a robust system of health declarations and vigorous contact tracing.
The mutual recognition of agreed measures is critical for the resumption of international travel. This is a key deliverable of the COVID-19 Aviation Recovery Task Force (CART) of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).
“The safety of passengers and crew is paramount. The aviation industry is working with governments to re-start flying when this can be done safely. Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission on board aircraft is low. And we will take measures—such as the wearing of face coverings by passengers and masks by crew—to add extra layers of protection. We must arrive at a solution that gives passengers the confidence to fly and keeps the cost of flying affordable. One without the other will have no lasting benefit,” de Juniac said.