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Airlines, travel operators worry over new COVID-19 variant

...as Aviation Ministry keeps mum on travel ban

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NIGERIAN aviation stakeholders have expressed worry regarding the future of the travel industry, which another lockdown may yet threaten following the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus in Nigeria.

Several European countries like Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Italy; African countries and the United Arab Emirates have been recording daily increases in the number of confirmed cases.

Countries like China, Israel, Japan and Morocco have imposed strict border controls due to the resurgence of the pandemic.

The industry had lost billions of naira last year after the federal government closed all airports on March 23, 2020, to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. But the federal government started reopening them on July 8, 2020.

The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control on Wednesday announced the discovery of cases of the Omicron variant in three persons with travel history to South Africa. It immediately began enforcement of its vaccine mandate policy for its employees, barring them from accessing their workplaces without proof of vaccination.

Meanwhile, the total number of confirmed cases in the country of the initial strain of the virus stands at over 214,000 cases, while 2,978 deaths had been recorded by 6 pm of December 3, as obtained from the NCDC microsite.

The Vice President, National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies, Lagos Zone, Mr Yinka Folami, noted that the purchase of plane tickets had declined on the back of the discovery of the new variant and travel restrictions.

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Folami said, “The pace of purchase of tickets now is interrupted, and that is because of the Omicron virus and the additional restrictions put in place. So obviously, the purchases have reduced, some have been cancelled, and even some bookings issued are also being cancelled. Many students going to Canada have their tickets on hold until there is a current position on entry requirements. That cuts across other segments of customer purchases.”

In 2020, the International Air Transport Association predicted a net loss of $118.5 billion for airlines. It said this would reduce sharply by $80bn in 2021, according to a report titled ‘Deep losses continue into 2021.’

Similarly, IATA said Nigerian airlines lost $2.09bn in April and June 2020, with passenger numbers declining by 5.32 million compared to the corresponding periods in 2019.

Speaking in a telephone interview, the spokesperson for Dana Air, Mr Kingsley Ezenwa, said the industry miraculously survived the pandemic. It would be disastrous if the authorities imposed a lockdown. He, however, stated that the load factor on the domestic route for Dana had considerably improved to 80 per cent.

“Have you seen IATA’s press statement? Their stand is every other person’s stand. Recovery could be very difficult sometimes. The fact that we could get over the coronavirus initially was unbelievable, so we just need to follow IATA stands concerning the new virus strain.

“There is nothing anybody can do about the new strain of the virus than adhering to safety protocols. I don’t know how another economic shutdown would be like. It would be huge on the economy. I think it is best to stick with the safety protocols, but Dana Airlines has been complying with safety protocols 100 per cent. Load factor is like 80-85 per cent at the moment.”

UAE route

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Responding to the sale of tickets on Nigeria to the UAE route, Folami stated that there has been an uptick in “purchase intention and actual purchases.”

Two carriers, Emirates and Air Peace have recently announced intentions to commence flights from Nigeria into Dubai. This was after both countries met to amend travel requirements. After the announcement, reports revealed that Saudi Arabia and the UAE discovered the latest variant of COVID-19, Omicron, in their region on Wednesday.

The spokesman of Air Peace, Stanley Olisa, and communications firm for Emirates, JSP, did not expressly state whether they would withdraw services from that route for now.

However, press statements attributed to both carriers stated that they would resume flights adhering to safety conditions, which include a negative Covid-19 PCR test certificate for tests taken no more than 72 hours before departure.

An aircraft engineer and Chief Executive of 7 Stars Global Hangar, Isaac Balami, advised the airlines to continue to operate. “As long as the airports are open, nothing is wrong in stopping Air Peace or Emirates from resuming. Some people need to move for various reasons. We should be relaxed and assume that all is well.”

He added, “Nigeria has not done badly but can still do more. The best way is to maintain a normal routine. Sanitise, wash your hands with soap and water, don’t expose yourself to other citizens. If we can be more careful, it would be good. The way it is going, it seems the virus may never stop. It has gradually become part of our lives, and the best way to live with it is to protect yourself and protect others.”

Similarly, IATA, the global body for airlines, noted that international passenger demand in October 2021 was 65.5 per cent below what was obtained in October 2019.

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In its report titled “Government response to Omicron threatens emerging recovery”, released on Thursday, IATA said that airlines in Africa suffered a 60.2 per cent drop in passenger traffic in October 2021 compared to two years ago.

IATA’s Director-General, Willie Walsh, said the Omicron variant of the coronavirus was affecting the gains of the travel industry.

“October’s traffic performance reinforces that people will travel when they are permitted to. Unfortunately, government responses to the emergence of the Omicron variant are putting at risk the global connectivity it has taken so long to rebuild,” he was quoted to have said.

Aviation Ministry mum on travel ban
The Ministry of Aviation is yet to decide if flights may be banned as a result of the discovery of the new variant in Nigeria. Its director of Public Affairs, James Odaudu, told our correspondent to direct inquiries to the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19 in a text message on Friday.

It read, “The issue is within the purview of the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19 and not the Ministry of Aviation. Kindly direct your enquiries there, please.”

The NANTA Vice President expressed optimism that the travel industry would rebound.

“The industry would recover. As long as travel is about the position of distance, people will fly. There has been a pace of recovery. Everything we do in transport must be balanced against the issue of public health. There is a lot of pent-up demand that travel would rebound. I believe Omicron would settle down soon next year.”

Experienced Business reporter seeking the truth and upholding justice. Email tips to [email protected]

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