Europe’s commercial aviation leaders have urgently requested governments to ensure a consistent and coordinated approach to dealing with COVID-19 safety measures, and to replace the 14-day quarantine requirements with a more effective process for testing passengers and crews. Speaking at the Flight Safety Foundation’s International Air Safety Summit, they revealed the sector is facing a critical struggle for survival which is being exacerbated by the confusing variations in national polices which are continuing to undermine plans agreed by the European Commission.

“We’re in a very complex environment with high political tensions as the EC tries to enforce leadership and [European] states continue to do their own thing with unilateral quarantines,” said Montserrat Barriga, Director-General of the European Regions Airline Association (ERA). Along with Thomas Rynaert, Managing Director of the Airlines for Europe group and Eurocontrol Director-General Eamonn Brennan, she complained that the regulatory fragmentation has continued despite an agreement made on 13 October by European Union (EU) governments to accept a European Council recommendation for a coordinated approach to cross-border travel restrictions.

Brennan stated that the announcement was “a good first step”. But he acknowledged that airlines and airports are not satisfied, fearing that confusing and constantly changing restrictions will continue to deter passenger numbers. “They are not happy because the agreement doesn’t go far enough,” he told the summit. “It’s a typical European decision that recommends and advises. The industry wanted a strong role for the EC, quicker change, and with a stronger emphasis for states to make changes. We’re very disappointed by the reaction of some governments because they are not seeing that the risk of COVID stems from community transmission [within countries]. They still see aviation as the enemy, and you see the same thing in the US.”

Europe’s air transport sector is now not expected to recover until 2024 according to Eurocontrol. Although ERA Association has reported that traffic levels and load factors had improved slightly during early summer, the unilateral restrictions put in place later in the year and at short notice ruined any customer confidence. Rynaert stated that, “just one day after the European Council decided to take a coordinated approach to opening borders, national governments decided to do things differently and so we had a patchwork of national travel restrictions.”

Eurocontrol has complained that a lack of political leadership in Europe is stopping any significant recovery within the commercial aviation sector which could be achieved in light of the agreement over the next steps between EASA and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

“Some politicians are just not taking this seriously,” Rynaert complained. “The crisis is having a much wider impact than just on the aviation sector. It’s hitting tourism and local economies hard, and yet some politicians just don’t seem to get that. Our main problems are political and social issues, not technical issues.”

Barriga has stressed the situation could get worse before any sort of recovery. She revealed that several ERA member airlines are “in pre-receivership situations,” meaning that they are at risk of going bankrupt. “Some are waiting for new capital injections, but investors are very cautious because they don’t think recovery is around the corner,” she said.