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Opinion: 'An unjustified panic against all international travel has developed in Ireland'

The effects of this isolationist approach will dwarf the impact of the virus itself, writes commercial airline pilot Robert Dagg.

Robert Dagg Commercial Airline Pilot

ON 11 SEPTEMBER 2001 the world was left reeling from a terrorist attack in the USA.

2,977 people lost their lives in the World Trade Centre attacks and a further 125 people died at the Pentagon the same day.

Those attacks highlighted major vulnerabilities in aviation security and caused chaos for air travel in their wake. As a result of the findings and recommendations of the 9/11 commission, we now have the layers of security we pass through on every flight to prevent an attack like 9/11 from happening again.

These actions were taken in unison by the international community at every airport across the world.

Today, we find ourselves in the midst of a new attack that has exposed vulnerabilities once again.

If these vulnerabilities are not addressed immediately, they threaten to inflict enormous damage on our society and our economy.

Covid-19 has resulted in massive loss of life across the world. It doesn’t matter where you live, how rich or poor you are or what your ethnicity is, this virus doesn’t discriminate.

That is one of the reasons it has instilled such fear. Like the 9/11 attackers, this virus can move among us undetected.

People are again afraid to travel, mix in crowds or enter public spaces for fear of becoming the next victim of this new invisible threat. 

We are again in a situation that requires a coordinated international response. Currently, we are failing that test.

Ireland is a perfect example of how thinking we can act alone is destined to fail. We cannot expect the nation to stay home indefinitely, shun international travel and hobble businesses while hoping this problem goes away or a vaccine is found.

It is not practical and we have alternatives available.

Solutions

The international aviation community achieved a coordinated implementation of the 9/11 commission security recommendations in response to a global threat of terrorism.

If they had not acted together at that time, then the August 2006 plot to blow up 10 airliners over the Atlantic may well have come to pass. It did not.

Instead commercial air traffic grew 30% since 2001 and the terrorism threat has been addressed successfully. Aviation is currently the safest mode of transport we have in the world. You are between four and six times more likely to be killed on a train journey.

Aviation is a safety critical industry. The industry learnt how to be the hard way. They are leaders in safety management and mitigating risk. So when these airlines say they can operate safely in the current Covid-19 crisis, we should listen to what they have to say and not just dismiss the statement as one of financial self interest.

The price of error in aviation is colossal.

I have been a commercial pilot with an international carrier for 12 years. I would not sit in an aircraft and risk damaging my health for any amount of money. I know its value. I would absolutely refuse to operate an aircraft if I thought there was even a slightly increased risk of danger to any passenger on board that plane.

Airline executives don’t decide if a plane flies or not. Their operational staff legally hold that responsibility and it is a decision that we take seriously. If we get it wrong the results can be catastrophic.

Many of the lessons we learnt 20 years ago in the aviation industry can be put into practice again to marginalise this new foe, to track and isolate it, to minimise any risk of exposure and allow our world to move back toward normality.

There will be changes to what we consider “the new normal” in the future but just like we adapted to the layers of security we faced in the wake of 9/11, we will adapt to the measures we need to take against Covid-19 today.

There is a cohort of politicians and self-proclaimed experts exhorting a course of isolationism, closing this country to the rest of the world until we find a cure.

They have clearly not considered the wider social and economic impacts of their recommendations. The effects of this isolationist approach will dwarf the impact of the virus itself.

Economic issues

CSO figures show the unemployment rate in Ireland is 16.7%. Youth unemployment is currently 41.2%. These numbers are due to Covid-19 restrictions hindering business. Unless we start to put measures in place to allow our economy to function alongside this virus, these numbers will become permanent. That will be catastrophic for our country.

We have had a health crisis for the last five months. Health services have that crisis under control now in most of the EU and many countries outside the bloc. We need to put sensible measures in place to maintain that control so we can start addressing the oncoming economic crisis.

The aviation sector is once again the most severely affected commercial enterprise in this crisis just as it was post 9/11.

Aer Lingus, for example, is currently losing in the region of €50 million a month according to the trade unions. They, like all airlines operating in Ireland are crippled by the current government advice against foreign travel, and quarantine rules, even for Covid-safe countries and passengers fears over possible exposure to Covid-19 while travelling.

Compounding these problems are the enormous outgoings airlines have regardless of the number of passengers they carry. For example, one Airbus 330 wide body aircraft can cost between €300,000 and €650,000 per month in leasing fees alone.

Aer Lingus have 14 of these and only five are currently in operation. The rest are generating zero revenue.

An unjustified panic against international travel has developed in this country in the midst of this pandemic.

Risk assessment

We cannot dismiss the fact that unless we change the way we undertake international travel then it poses a risk to public health.

However, the WHO and ECDC have given clear recommendations on lifting restrictions by taking steps to mitigate the risk of Covid transmission. There will never be “zero-risk” without a vaccine but if these changes are implemented robustly, we can minimise that risk to a minute level.

“…there is no ‘zero risk’ when considering the potential importation or exportation of cases in the context of international travel. Therefore, thorough and continuous risk assessment and management will help identify, reduce and mitigate those risks, while balancing the socio-economic consequences of travel measures…”
-WHO, International travel resumption guidelines, 30 July 2020.

The actions recommended by the WHO and ECDC for resumption of our economies needs to be implemented on a coordinated basis internationally. We have already achieved some of these. 

Face masks are now mandatory in all airport facilities and at all times while aboard an aircraft. Rigorous disinfection regimes have been put in place by airlines and airport operators.

According to the WHO, we have achieved a good standard of risk communication and community engagement internationally.

Educating people about the signs and symptoms of this virus and the actions required should a person become symptomatic helps prevent ignorance of this virus leading to a symptomatic individual attempting air travel.

Further steps such as temperature checking every person before entering the airport terminal would further underpin these measures.

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Unfortunately. we have yet to see this being undertaken in Irish airports.

Finally, an internationally coordinated Covid-19 testing and immunity certificate program for passengers should be implemented.

Those travelling from countries which are currently experiencing community transmission need to either show immunity or negative test results.

There are practical hurdles in achieving this according to the WHO and the ECDC, primarily speed, scale and cost, but it can be achieved.

Getting this process in place for travellers will be a major step towards catching, isolating and contact tracing asymptomatic cases. It would also provide a large amount of data to the scientific community to help them combat the virus.

None of these actions will achieve Covid-safe international travel in isolation but if implemented together the risk will be reduced to such a minute level that we will once again be safer on an aeroplane than any other mode of transport.

All these actions will have a cost. But that cost will be a fraction of the price we are going to pay in economic damage and unemployment if we as a country sit on our hands and hope that this virus goes away by itself or a vaccine is found.

Robert Dagg is a commercial Pilot, currently flying the Airbus 330 for a major Irish airline and an aviation theoretical knowledge instructor. 

He has worked in the aviation industry for the last 12 years and has several years experience in flight operations roles managing passenger airline operations, as well as in the cargo sector utilising the Boeing 747 on cargo operations between Europe, Middle East, Asia Africa and the USA.

Prior to working in the Aviation industry Rob graduated from University College Dublin in 2003 with a BSc Degree in Science and worked previously in the Irish software industry creating data analysis, risk and compliance monitoring software systems for central banks in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

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About the author:

Robert Dagg  / Commercial Airline Pilot

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