By Chinelo Obogo [email protected] 07064781119
News of the arrival of first batch of 3.92 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine through the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Assess Facility (COVAX) at the Nnamdi Azikwe International Airport, Abuja, came as a huge relief to millions of Nigerian who had waited desperately as the pandemic ravaged nations of the world, leaving in its trail death and confusion.
The delivery came as fear of the second wave of COVID-19 gripped the world, with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) warning that passenger traffic for African airlines had gone from bad to worse in January with industry experts expressing confidence that the roll out of vaccines would greatly impact Nigeria’s aviation industry recovery.
IATA’s report showed that African airlines’ traffic dropped 66.1 per cent in January, which was a modest improvement compared to a 68.8 per cent decline recorded in December versus a year ago. January capacity contracted 54.2 per cent versus January 2019, and load factor fell 18.4 percentage points to 52.3 per cent.
Its Director General, Alexandre de Juniac, said increased testing capability and vaccine distribution would be critical for governments to unlock economic activity, including travel. He empasised that it was critical that governments build and share their restart plans along with the benchmarks that will guide them as it will enable the industry to be prepared to energise the recovery without any unnecessary delay
“To say that 2021 has not kicked off on a good start is an understatement. Financial prospects for the year are worsening as governments tighten travel restrictions. We now expect the industry to burn through $75-$95 billion in cash this year, rather than turning cash positive in the fourth quarter, as previously thought. This is not something that the industry will be able to endure without additional relief measures from governments.
“Global standards to securely record test and vaccination data in formats that will be internationally recognised are urgently needed. These will be critical to restarting international travel if governments continue to require verified testing or vaccination data. IATA will soon launch the IATA Travel Pass to help travelers and governments manage digital health credentials. But the full benefit of IATA Travel Pass cannot be realized until governments agree the standards for the information they want,” he said.
While some are of the opinion that vaccination is the key to getting the world flying again, international bodies like the Airports Council International, which represents airports worldwide, say there should be a choice between testing and vaccination, fearing that any general rule which imposes pre-flight injections would be as disruptive as quarantines.
The ACI World Director General, Luis Felipe de Oliveira, fears that if governments make COVID-19 vaccinations a requirement before flying, it would cause adverse effects and cripple businesses, especially in countries that have small domestic aviation markets.
Alexandre de Juniac, says that making vaccination compulsory would not work globally and systematic testing is more critical to reopening borders. He said that for many developing countries like Nigeria for instance, it’s going to take years before everybody that wants to fly have the possibility of getting the vaccine.
Juniac said: “Optimism that the arrival and initial distribution of vaccines would lead to a prompt and orderly restoration in global air travel have been dashed in the face of new outbreaks and new mutations of the disease. The world is more locked down today than at virtually any point in the past 12 months and passengers face a bewildering array of rapidly changing and globally uncoordinated travel restrictions. We urge governments to work with industry to develop the standards for vaccination, testing, and validation that will enable governments to have confidence that borders can reopen and international air travel can resume once the virus threat has been neutralised.”
Experts want priority attention paid to aviation sector
The Federal Government said that it is aiming to start vaccinating frontline healthcare workers from today, March 5, followed by strategic leaders on March 8. The 3.92 million vaccines is part of the 16 million doses initially expected in the country.
But industry experts including the President of the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA), Susan Akporiaye, hopes that aviation workers would be considered among those to be given priority because the vaccination will affect the recovery of the sector because it is what would make traveling much easier and it would put a stop to the many air travel regulations.
“Vaccination is key to our road to recovery because even as it is, traveling is very inconveniencing because you have to do a minimum of four PCR tests and with the issues raised by the United Arab Emirates, it is five. I’m very scared of even taking the tests because it is very scary. When I saw how the instrument used for carrying out the test was put into persons and it goes almost close to your brain, I was frightened and you have to do that five times. I have a client who started bleeding through the nose after carrying out the test. It’s a horrible experience, so, unless it is actually very important, no one is planning to travel to anywhere. So, the earlier we start vaccinations, the better for us and that would be our road to recovery,” she said.
Aviation expert, Amos Akpan said: “The availability of COVID-19 vaccines to the Nigerian public is important to the aviation industry and would aid recovery. The industry made gains upon resumption from lockdown in August 2020. The industry’s state of preparedness to provide safe environment and operations was top notch. They quickly built confidence in the traveling public. The industry moved towards recovery until the recession and the second wave set in. Countries have started to administer the vaccine to their citizens; the fact that Nigeria has taken delivery of the shipment of vaccines is commendable.”
However, another Captain, John Ojikutu, does not see the correlation between the roll out of vaccines and the recovery of the sector because according to him, there hasn’t been significant growth in the past five years before COVID. He said: “First, from the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) statistics, passenger traffic figures, have had no significant growth in the last five years pre COVID-19. The Vision 2020 report predicted that the industry would achieve 20 million passenger traffic in 2020 but it didn’t happen as traffic swung between 14 and 15 million.
“We are expected to reach 20 million passenger last year but in the last seven pre-covid years before 2020, the figure has been up and down between 14 million and 15 million with exception of 2019 with 16 million from 26 airports. Lagos and Abuja airports figures make them number 8 and 11 respectively in Africa with Johannesburg number one with 22m passengers traffic more than the figure of 16m for our 26 airports.
“Buying low range and low capacity aircraft makes sense but this should have long been in the initial business plans of most Nigerian domestic airlines. Earlier, airlines used more of such in BAC-1-11, F-28, and not B737 that those before them never considered in their business plans. They must remember that in spite of the benefits of little delays, the aircraft could be getting into the maintenance bay more frequently than the bigger one; they would need to review their business plans to take care of this before they begin to give complaints for another intervention to government. The vaccines have nothing to do with it,” he said.