Airlines and COVID-19

Image Credit: Nurina Iman Nizam

Killian Conyngham looks at some of the more questionable actions of airlines during the ongoing pandemic.

From Saturday the 16th of January, all passengers arriving in Dublin Airport must have a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of arrival. Those coming from a red or grey region under the EU’s traffic light system must then restrict their movement for 14 days unless they get a second test 5 days after arrival. The exception to this is passengers from Britain or South Africa who must restrict their movements for 14 days regardless, even if they get a second negative test result. These new rules come in the wake of a significant surge in Covid-19 cases in Ireland, with the new strains from both the U.K. and South Africa being identified among Irish individuals.

While the Irish government seeks to curtail and limit international travel some seem to have had other ambitions. Ryanair notably went ahead with what they referred to as an ‘out of this world’ ‘Black Friday’ sale last November. Selling seats with a ‘buy one get one free’ promotion, Ryanair’s Twitter encouraged people to travel with a friend in the period from December to March. This was followed by their ‘Cyber Monday’ promotion, which saw 10,000 seats reduced to 5 euro, all on flights in December and January. 

Such sales, which by their very nature are designed to encourage people to fly who wouldn’t have otherwise done so, seem to run fairly contrary to the government advice, which has remained that “the safest thing to do is not to travel abroad”. Of course, it is hard to determine for certain whether these sales actually succeeded in encouraging people who were not planning on doing so to take unnecessary trips. And too it could be argued that Ryanair could not have known for sure that the winter months would see as cases as many experts were warning they would, with their more lenient than usual refund policies allowing for such changes. Though, despite these technicalities, it seems fairly clear that encouraging impulsive flight purchases with flash sales and low prices remained fairly far outside the spirit of things.

There will always be individuals willing to bend or break the rules, and offering up an easy way to do so is only likely to convince more people to join that camp. The messaging used by Ryanair here is important too. As a large company, they are likely to command some authority in many people’s minds, and so when they offer up cheap flights with encouraging messages, this could easily be seen by some as a vindication of the restriction-breaking holiday they had planned. Especially when this messaging contains the phrase “lockdown lifted” in all caps, with a dancing Santa underneath saying “ho-ho-ho test and go!”

With these words, comes action too, as in July of last year Ryanair launched a legal challenge against the travel restrictions at the time. It was argued that such restrictions were an overreach of the Government's executive powers. They claimed the requirement at the time for individuals returning from countries not on the ‘Green list’ to self-isolate for 14 days was unconstitutional. The government changed the wording of their travel restriction at the time in response to the action. The case was ultimately ruled against Ryanair, who were also ordered to pay the legal costs of the dispute. 

It seems Ryanair is far from an outlier among airliners in their opposition to restrictions as well. Aer Lingus was also ordered by the courts to pay their own legal fees, as a notice party to the suit, where they supported Ryanair. The lobby group ‘Airlines for Europe’, who represent companies accounting for 70% of air traffic in Europe according to their website, released a press release on the 2nd of December last year, “urging European governments to immediately abolish quarantine measures and other travel restrictions". This press release was tweeted out by the group, with the accompanying hashtags #LiftTheTravelBan #TestDontTrap and #NoQuarantine. The normalisation of this sort of overtly political corporate messaging seems unsettling at best and downright nefarious at worst.

The normalisation of this sort of overtly political corporate messaging seems unsettling at best and downright nefarious at worst.

It should not be so shocking that the mega-corporations of the aviation sector, many of which received bailouts at the beginning of the pandemic, are now calling for restrictions to be lifted. They are profit-driven entities, and the more they can push the narrative that it is safe to travel, the more passengers and profits there will be up for grabs for them. Their actions are unsurprising, and also likely a worrying indictment of what is to come once serious climate change regulations begin to cut into the profits of the aviation sector. In the absence of clear regulations, it seems exceedingly unlikely that big business will altruistically shoulder the costs of necessary measures, regardless of societal implications.

a worrying indictment of what is to come once serious climate change regulations begin to cut into the profits of the aviation sector

As we look forward, the big question that remains on the horizon for airline companies and individuals alike surrounds travel and coronavirus is what Summer 2021 will look like.

Numerous countries globally are considering the idea of a so-called ‘vaccine passport’, whereby individuals who present proof of vaccination will be able to travel without facing the restrictions imposed on others. In Europe, the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has proposed such an approach, claiming it would help encourage vaccine uptake.

Ireland looks unlikely to have the entire country vaccinated by the summer, however. So even with the possibility of such vaccine passports it may well be the case that people currently booking holidays for the summer could still face restrictions such as two-week quarantines, negative COVID test or in certain cases even travel bans.

Airlines are not blind to this uncertainty either. Both Aer Lingus and Ryanair have advertised free changes on flights over the summer 2021 period, likely hoping that this will entice people to book holidays without having to worry overly about new strains, COVID cases or vaccination schedules. Only time will tell how effective this approach will prove to be.