| | | Effective PR

Coronavirus - CoVid-19 - it is time to ban transit flights

Bryan Edwards

As countries around the world close their borders for international travel from badly affected countries, are airport transits a threat?

Qatar - it's a lovely place. Seriously, it is. But it's tiny. It's got a population that's only 2.5 million, approx. To put that into perspective, it's less than half the target population for Singapore's projections for its own long term viability. Doha is gorgeous - it's the kind of place that many cities wish they could develop. To put that into perspective, if it wasn't for financial services and trade through its ancient ports, there's be no city at all. Even so, it has a respectable GDP, relative to population size, of about USD170,000 million.

Qatar has a large population compared to Bahrain which is next door. That has only 1.m million, approx. And when it comes to GDP, Bahrain is a true minnow with only USD36,000 million, approx. Manama, the capital, is lovely in a different way - lots of traditional buildings and winding lanes.

Both Qatar and Bahrain have excellent airlines. Compared to the mighty Etihad (Abu Dhabi) and Emirates (Dubai) they are small but what they don't have in size, they make up for in quality yet, despite that, they consistently offer amongst the lowest prices for travel between so many places. Dubai is built on the sweat of Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos who also largely populate the F&B sector. A look at its arrivals and departure boards shows that - as well as lots of flights from Russia from where huge crew-cut, tattooed, men and their strident blonde wives arrive to visit their money.

Abu Dhabi, with much greater restrictions on alcohol and entertainment, along with Kuwait, don't see the same type of visitor in such numbers. But their national airlines, helped by the oil under their feet, also offer long-haul hop-sit-hop travel at what often seems like a discount but actually isn't: they just have lower operating costs than, say, Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines or anything in Europe. The advantage of a Middle Eastern base led Qantas, Australia's flag carrier, to switch first from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore and then to Dubai for what is, for them, a forward operating base. And while it maintains a maintenance relationship with Emirates, there is an irony that Qantas returned to LHR-AUS transits being via SIN. Or it did until this week when QF abandoned all international flights, swiftly followed by Virgin Australia.

Qatar Airways, this week, announced that despite a substantial drop in profits, it's continuing to fly because some routes are still carrying as much as a 60% load. Other Middle East Airlines are reducing flights but not parking their entire fleet. There's good econonic reasons for not doing so: Australia is, more or less, at the end of the world. It's not a transit country to anywhere. New Zealand, even moreso. In both cases, people tend to go there and stay or turn round and go back the way they came. But not so in the Middle East which, with those airports mentioned and a healthy combination of domestic and foreign airlines bobbing in and out, have restored their position as, collectively, the crossroads of international travel, rivalled only by Amsterday/Heathrow and, separately, Singapore and Hong Kong. One might think that there would be some similar situation in the USA but it's too fragmented and too many airports across the country have too many international direct flights so that the nearest that comes to it, and it's not really close, is LAX.

The big question is whether those airports, in which travellers can find themselves waiting for six, eight, ten or more hours are now, effectively, petri-dishes full of people who may be corona virus carriers and not know it. Both airports are regularly stuffed with large numbers of passengers congregating in groups on the floor and security queues for transit passengers can be long and fraught.

And that's where the big question arises. Saudi Arabia with an official population of less than 35 million has a big corona virus problem. It has a more or less open border with Bahrain and relatively little formality on land borders with Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the UAE, and Yemen. Well, not, in the current political situation, Yemen, actually. But the real problem is its transient population - every year the number of tourists grows as air travel becomes cheaper and Muslims go on a variety of religious trips. This year, assuming consistent growth, would have seen somewhere around 20 million tourists from all over the world. Some stay several weeks at at Haj, which this year will be at the end of July, the numbers surge and millions live in temporary accommodation, camps or sleep rough. Saudi is reportedly the original source for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome which until recently, was the biggest threat facing international travellers in many parts of the world. Saudi has been reporting low levels of infection of CoVID-19 but other countries have reported that travellers returning from the Kingdom have contracted the disease. Certainly, it is now reporting deaths significantly more often that it had been reporting cases.

One of those cases has raised the question of safety at transit hubs: As from today, Dubai and Abu Dhabi airports are closed - for how long remains to be seen. The total number of cases in the Gulf Cooperation Council states, as of Tuesday, was reported as being only 2100 - with the bulk being in Saudi and Qatar. As from Monday the UAE, which does not include Qatar and Bahrain, announced that their airports would close to international traffic including transit.

That, then, raises the question as to whether that will simply mean that there is displacement - and all transit happens through Qatar and Bahrain. That might be what Qatar Airlines is banking on - if it's one of only two modern airlines in the region still doing international traffic, and if it will take tickets from other airlines, then it can do good business. Bahrain is still accepting flights from across the Middle East, plus Mumbai, Istanbul, Frankfurt, Paris and London - prime destinations for hubbing passengers. And hubbing it is - a Turkish Airlines flight to Pnomh Penh is still scheduled for early tomorrow morning. There are also flights to Hong Kong, Mumbai and Karachi and, notably, Kochi providing a gateway across the middle east for travellers from Russia - a country that is gaining considerable scepticism due to its very low numbers of reported cases. And yet, there is an opposite side to Bahrain's position - it was amongst the first countries in the world to take action to close its borders. Indeed, while Formula One was on its way to Melbourne, Bahrain had already announced immigration restrictions and crowd control orders. The Bahrain Grand Prix, it said, could go ahead two weeks after Melbourne but only if it took place in an empty stadium and special dispensation was given to teams and personnel from, in particular Italy. Down the coast, in Qatar, similar restrictions saw the MotoGP series opener cancelled. Moto2 and Moto3 races went ahead but in MotoGP far too many people are based in Italy.

But in Europe, political considerations took precedence over public health issues. EU politicians, obsessed with protecting, amongst other things, the free movement of persons, disapproved the closing of borders. Before Italy imposed a domesticmovement control order, there was free movement into and out of the area that was becoming the centre of European infection. Spain, similarly. Even though the UK and Ireland are outside the Schengen region, and despite the UK's pending withdrawal from the EU, they could not close their borders to EU citizens although they could have done so for non-EU citizens.

There's a technical reason why transit is different: in transit, passengers do not pass through immigration and are, therefore, not subject to immigration controls. Extended transit times, as hanging around in an airport waiting for a connecting flight is called, mean people are in public areas for long periods of time. They need to sit, eat, drink, even sleep.

The question for the rest of the world is this: if countries are closing their borders to direct flights from badly affected areas, are they now going to ban flights from transit hubs and/or turn back passengers who have been to, for example, Italy, Spain, Iran or Saudi Arabia? Or all flights from New York, now almost on its own, beating the national tally of almost every country. Is reporting enough, even if it's subject to a quarantine period on landing?

ADDENDUM 28 March 2020 03 AM GMT. To emphasise the seriousness of the situation, on the next page, we have copied (without permission but for the sake of public interest because we can freeze it as to time) flight information for Doha for 12 hours from (local time) midnight to midday. It is sourced from https://airport-departures-arr....

We must emphasise - Doha is not alone. Data from many airports gives a similar picture which explains why it is of such concern. It is still possible, if one is not particularly concerned with time, to get to many places from many other places and, because of inconsisteny of travel bans, there is little or no control, on a global basis, of who one is in contact with in transit, even if the actual flights one travels on are point to point between known low-infection places.

---------------- Advertising ----------------