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Asia's airlines navigate new safety norms after coronavirus

Carriers introduce social distancing and health checks as lockdowns end

Members of a Thai Airways crew disinfect the cabin of an aircraft. The coronavirus has made greater health and safety measures a necessity for airilnes. (Photo byAkira Kodaka)

TOKYO/KUALA LUMPUR -- When Philippine Airlines unveiled its new uniforms, the flag carrier was proud to point out that they were designed not only with the help of a fashion designer, but also medical experts.

The uniforms, introduced on April 14, incorporate personal protective gear and medically approved material to keep cabin crew safe, the company said.

Decorated with Philippine Airlines' colorful flag logo, they are one of the flashier measures airlines have introduced to combat the coronavirus pandemic -- and they are also a sign that Asia's airlines are preparing for a long fight.

The uniforms are "part of the new normal and this norm will remain in place as long as necessary," airline spokesperson Cielo Villaluna told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Across Asia, airlines are introducing social distancing-style seating plans, conducting temperature checks, and reducing or eliminating in-flight services, such as food and beverage sales and duty-free shopping, all in a bid to convince passengers -- and regulators -- that it is safe to fly again.

The uniforms are "part of the new normal and this norm will remain in place as long as necessary," according to Philippine Airlines spokesperson. (Photo courtesy of PAL)

The situation is similar in many ways to the one airlines faced following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which also hurt demand and led to a flood of new rules and regulations.

But this time around, the measures intended to ease passenger worries could also keep demand for air travel low, analysts say.

"The [health] checks will start at the airport. ... On board aircraft [there] will initially be a need for greater spacing. ... There will need to be restrictions on the numbers of people in confined spaces on arrival, too," Peter Harbison, chairman emeritus of leading aviation research company CAPA (Centre for Aviation), told Nikkei.

"Internationally there will be considerably fewer aircraft flying for several years. Less dense seating means higher unit seat costs, so fares have to rise to cover those higher costs," he added.

Harbison predicts there will be perhaps half as many people on any given aircraft in the future.

Subhas Menon, director general of the regional trade group Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, likewise predicts only a slow return to normal.

"This pandemic will take time to abate, and we must all learn to adapt accordingly. ... When travel resumes it may be a slow and sporadic process," Menon said. It will be necessary, he added, to "reassure travelers that appropriate measures have been put in place to safeguard their journey and more broadly facilitate cross-border travel."

The coronavirus has already inflicted a historic downturn on the industry. According to the International Air Transport Association, Asia-Pacific airline passenger revenue will fall by $113 billion in 2020 compared to last year, with global passenger revenue set to fall 55% to $314 billion.

IATA, together with the International Transport Workers' Federation, has called for governments to support airlines, as air passenger demand globally is now down 80%. "Airlines are facing a liquidity crisis which threatens the viability of 25 million jobs directly and indirectly dependent upon aviation, including jobs in the tourism and hospitality sectors," IATA said.

For now, the beefed-up safety measures are mostly being introduced on flights used to repatriate citizens and help stranded travelers return home, as regular service remains suspended across much of the region.

Garuda Indonesia is checking temperature of passengers and crews, and requesting passengers leave an empty seat between each other. The carrier has also installed high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters on all of its aircraft, it said.

"These measures are not really adding an extra cost as booking and actual [passengers] onboard in this COVID-19 is low. The physical distancing between passenger can be applied without really need [for] an extra flight," Garuda said.

Meanwhile Cathay Pacific Airways, which is operating at just 3% of its capacity in April and May, has simplified meal services and suspended duty-free shopping on its mainland China flights, and stopped offering amenities such as blankets and magazines.

Many airlines, including Philippine Airlines and Malaysia's AirAsia, believe measure like these will remain in place even after lockdowns are lifted and scheduled flights resume.

To win regulatory support to resume service, AirAsia has proposed implementing onboard social distancing and screening passengers pre-, in- and post-flight, AirAsia Group President (Airline) Bo Lingam told Nikkei.

"This is still subject to each country's rules and regulations. We are still expecting feedback to our proposal by relevant authorities" Lingam said.

The carrier resumed scheduled domestic flights in Malaysia on Wednesday, and plans to restart flights serving Thailand, the Philippines, India and Indonesia by early May, pending approval from the authorities.

Not everyone is convinced that these safety measures represent a new normal.

EVA Airways of Taiwan is requesting all passengers wear masks except when eating, has suspended on-request meals, and has all flight attendants wear personal protective gear, including masks and goggles.

However, "these preventive measures are only taken during the epidemic prevention period," the company said.

An executive from another Asian carrier who asked not to be named said the company is against the idea of promoting social distancing. The carrier, which uses HEPA filters like Garuda Indonesia, wants to "deliver a message to passengers that in-flight air is the cleanest in the world," he said.

But for now at least, regulators are not taking any chances.

India's Directorate General of Civil Aviation issued a circular on March 23 explaining the social distancing measures airlines must take to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. This came a day after India banned international flights and two days before it suspended domestic flights.

The measures -- which are expected to remain in place once the airlines restart operations -- include having at least 1 meter of space between passengers at check-in counters, keeping an empty seat between travelers, avoiding congestion at any time during boarding and providing sanitizer to staff and passengers as they board.

Last week, Chula Sukmanop, director-general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand, told more than 20 representatives of Thai and international carriers that, among other measures, airlines must keep every second seat empty, and apply social distancing measures at every step, from check-in and takeoff to landing and disembarking.

The flood of new directives and instructions from various regulators has prompted industry trade groups to call for international coordination in order to avoid the confusion that followed 9/11.

"We don't want to repeat the mistakes made after 9/11. ... We ended up with a mess of measure piled on top of measure. And nearly 20 years later we are still trying to sort it out," said IATA chief executive Alexandre de Juniac at a media briefing in April. "We need to find the equivalent process to take us to when a Covid-19 vaccine is available. The goal we should have is an effective set of standard practices that can be implemented globally as required," he said.

Once the pandemic is contained, airlines will still face a long road to recovery.

"The aviation world in future is not going to be as it was before," CAPA's Harbison said. "It will be a long time before global international aviation is able to flourish again."

Nikkei staff writers Cliff Venzon in Manila, Cheng Ting-Fang and Lauly Li in Taipei, Shotaro Tani in Jakarta, Dylan Loh in Singapore, Michelle Chan in Hong Kong, Kiran Sharma in New Delhi and Masayuki Yuda in Bangkok contributed to this story.

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