Diplocraft: Safely Restoring International Air Travel

On November 17th, the Meridian Center for Diplomatic Engagement hosted a virtual roundtable discussion on how to safely restore international air travel with both U.S. public and private sector leaders. In partnership with United Airlines, the interactive briefing focused on the impact of the pandemic on international air travel, the need to standardize testing protocol around the world, and the future of the air travel landscape.

Moderated by former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, the program featured the following speakers:

  • Pradeep Fernandes, Vice President of Strategy, Boeing
  • Dr. Luis Gonzalez, Senior Director, Medical Affairs, Abbott Rapid Diagnostics
  • Joel Szabat, Acting Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy, U.S. Department of Transportation

Speaker biographies can be found here.

Top takeaways from the conversation:

  1. A COMMON GOAL ACROSS SECTORS. While demand for domestic flights are rebounding and leading the recovery, international travel still lags behind, due in large part to each country’s COVID-related travel restrictions and quarantine policies. All speakers emphasized the goal of having a universal set of health standards and testing protocols, and the theme of collaboration was reiterated through the session. Multilateral organizations like International Air Transportation Association (IATA) and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) will play important roles in establishing agreement across governments and recognition across testing protocols as a way to return to international travel.
  2. RAPID TESTING WILL PLAY A VITAL ROLE. With extensive studies done on cabin airflow and in-flight transmission, industry is partnering with scientific authorities to figure out how to best protect travelers in flight. These consultations are yielding many innovations and breakthroughs, and in many ways, these discoveries can contribute to the wider pandemic response. At the end of the day, rapid testing will play a vital role as an alternative to existing travel restrictions and quarantines and further increasing consumer confidence. The recent debut of United Airlines’ passenger COVID-19 testing program implemented in partnership with Abbott Laboratories, aims to provide to passengers and governments a demonstration of pre-departure testing’s potential to safely restore international air travel.
  3. U.S. RESPONSE. The U.S. strategy on restoring international air travel hinges on two main approaches. One involves negotiating bilateral agreements with other countries to establish safe travel bubbles, which could rely heavily on rapid testing and isolation periods. The unilateral approach involves the lifting of Section 212 F of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which would allow people from high-risk regions, such as the Schengen area, to visit the U.S. The decision-making process on restarting international travel should be multisectoral and ensure alignment with the country’s overall national strategies on public health.
  4. AVIATION IS IN THE BUSINESS OF HELPING BUSINESSES “DO BUSINESS." With air travel down by 70% since the beginning of the pandemic and an estimated 4.8 million jobs in aviation lost, the impact of COVID-19 on the industry has been severe. The precipitous drop in international travel is having a very tangible economic and social impact for many businesses and the wider economy. Aviation provides the only worldwide transportation network and plays an essential role in global business and tourism. A major employer, the air transport industry generates a total of 29 million jobs around the world. Restoring air transport connectivity will play a critical role in restarting the global economy and facilitating economic growth, particularly in the Global South.
  5. A MULTI-LAYERED APPROACH. Speakers emphasized the importance of the multilayered approach that looks beyond the in-flight experience, and instead, at the entire journey from the minute the traveler arrives at the airport. This holistic approach includes enhanced cleaning and disinfecting practices, HEPA air filtration systems that trap particulates and prevent them from recirculating into the cabin and identifying choke points in airports that would limit social distancing. Despite the progress being made every day on vaccines, testing will still be relevant in the short term and adopting a harmonized, globally consistent approach to testing protocol will play an important role in resuming international air travel.


Project summary

Diplocraft: Safely Restoring International Air Travel | November 2020
Number of Attendees: 35
Regions: Africa, East Asia and Pacific, Europe and Eurasia, Near East and North Africa, Western Hemisphere
Countries: Canada, Italy, Morocco, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland
Impact Areas: Transportation
Program Areas: Diplomatic Engagement
Partners: Private Sector