By Claudia Gualdi
During the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced individual travellers and entire industries – aviation, accommodation, and mobility – to rethink travel. Resuming travel while minimising the risk of exposure was the first main challenge, followed by a constant adaptation of the sectors with fast-changing safety policies imposed by national health authorities. Finally, several economic and geopolitical factors continue to threaten the recovery of global travel.
Travel in the summer of 2022 was dynamic overall, with data showing a promising recovery of short-haul traffic. On the other hand, long-haul traffic remains relatively low compared to pre-pandemic levels due to several factors. Consumer confidence is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels in the short-term. COVID-19 outbreaks no longer represent the only health threat while travelling, as other diseases like Monkeypox and Ebola have prompted officials to put in place entry bans or control measures upon arrival to some countries.
Health authorities have also noted signs that influenza season may start earlier than in past years, presenting a higher risk of transmission for those travelling in the Northern Hemisphere. Moreover, travel remains highly impacted by events triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which results in daily border and airspace closures, frequent changes in visa policies and flight disruptions on several routes. Among several uncertainties, the energy crisis affecting European countries as a result of the conflict has resulted in a general increase in aviation fuel prices and airfares.
The era of cheap flights appears to be over, with some budget carriers shutting down their hubs in major airports and cancelling routes due to unsustainable costs. In the past months, several strikes in the aviation industry in Europe have brought to light many major staffing and scheduling issues affecting the sector. The winter season will definitely be challenging for the actors involved though an uptick in holiday flights is possible with the end of most quarantine measures for inbound travellers.
What to expect when travelling
While testing and quarantine requirements for COVID-19 are being eased or fully lifted across countries, and mask mandates are being lifted onboard aeroplanes and at airports, passengers may still face a few restrictions while travelling to certain destinations. Some destinations still require passengers to fill out health declaration forms or perform COVID-19 tests upon arrival at ports of entry, with the possibility of being subject to short self-isolation mandatory periods or being transferred to a designated quarantine or healthcare facility for further assessment and treatment if symptomatic.
The requirement to download a national contact tracing app for entry has been discontinued in most destinations, as well as the need to submit pre-arrival PLFs and forms before departure. As of November, many destinations have reached pre-pandemic numbers in terms of arrivals, with Europe and the Middle East receiving the most out of every region. International borders have fully reopened in many countries of the Asia-Pacific region with lenient or no COVID-19 requirements for travellers. Regardless of vaccination status, arrivals are permitted entry without testing or quarantine requirements to Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, French Polynesia and Maldives, among other countries.
Visa-free entry or visa-on-arrival schemes have also resumed for Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Cambodia and Kazakhstan, as part of efforts to encourage the resumption of international travel. Stringent entry requirements and domestic measures such as mass testing or lockdown orders are still enforced in China, Hong Kong and Macau. Travel to Europe is easy and unrestricted. The presentation of a COVID-19 document for access to accommodation facilities, touristic sites and transport was lifted in most countries.
As of November, cases are increasing again across the region, but there are no plans yet to reintroduce restrictive measures. Travellers are advised to observe standard precautions and sanitary measures, especially in indoor crowded areas and on public transport, where masks may still be required. Most countries in the Middle East and North Africa have re-opened to international travellers; in particular, the Gulf state air hubs, including Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, have lifted all entry restrictions.
In the African continent, some countries remain under strict COVID-related policies, with Eritrea and Zimbabwe maintaining curfews and movement restrictions. Other countries have reopened for travel, usually maintaining pre-arrival testing requirements for those unvaccinated. An increasing number of countries in the Americas, such as Bermuda and Sint Maarten have lifted or plan to remove all COVID-19 travel restrictions, namely the requirement to submit health forms or present proof of health insurance, in the near–term.
The majority of countries in the region are still requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test to gain entry, with a select few upholding their ban on non-vaccinated travellers, as is the case with the United States (US) and Turks and Caicos. The easing of domestic measures continues across the region, with Mexico lifting its federal mask mandate, but the possibility of measures being reintroduced either on a nationwide or local level as the majority of the region enters the winter season remains.
The latest bans on short-haul flights and new sustainable travel options
As travel resumes after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more European countries are seizing the opportunity to rethink mobility and reduce its environmental impact. In the last few decades, short-haul flights represented the most convenient option for travel within Europe thanks to cheap fares offered by several low-cost carriers. However, the environmental impact of short-haul flights has been under discussion, as experts have proven through multiple studies that emissions generated by a short-haul flight per seat-kilometre may be double that of a long-haul flight.
In October 2021, Greenpeace advocated banning short-haul flights where there is a train alternative of under six hours. Although Europe generally benefits from good rail infrastructure, which plays a key role in replacing short-haul flights with high-speed trains and rail services in general, European countries lack a solid strategic approach. Other factors, such as the quality of trains, frequency of trains, ticket costs, accessibility and the liability of services should also be kept into consideration.
Like the airline industry, rail workers have staged strikes across the region over the past year in response to staff shortages, working hours and rising living costs. Despite these obstacles, interest around short-haul air travel alternatives seems to be of growing interest among European authorities. During the past year, some countries have already taken steps towards this direction. In April, France introduced a ban on short-haul flights for routes shorter than two and a half hours that can be covered by rail or bus services. The decision is set to impact around 12 percent of flights. Most of the affected routes are between Paris and southern cities such as Toulouse, Marseille and Nice.
In June, Germany adopted a policy to provide residents with €9 monthly train tickets, allowing unlimited travel on all public transport except high-speed trains. The initiative resulted in a substantial reduction in the use of cars and saved the equivalent annual CO2 emissions of almost 388,000 cars. Spanish authorities made rail travel free on 1 September, encouraging travellers to enjoy rail travel for short-medium journeys. The measure, initially due to last until the end of the year, has been extended until at least December 2023.
A growing number of countries, such as Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the United Kingdom are discussing similar measures. But the interest in rail services comes also from travellers themselves, who are looking more and more for sustainable and innovative travel options, as well as from airlines partnering with rail operators to reduce short-haul flights. In the Netherlands, Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM) and high-speed rail operator Thalys have recently started a trial to transfer airline passengers by train between Amsterdam Schiphol and Brussels airports, in order to drop one daily flight between Amsterdam and Brussels.
Austrian Airlines is partnering with the Austrian national rail operator ÖOB to offer around 30 daily rail connections for routes like Vienna-Salzburg. The carrier plans to replace Vienna to Graz and Klagenfurt flights with a high-speed AIRail link by the end of 2027. Other carriers are willing to support rail services, like Delta Airlines which last October expanded its Air+Rail programme, which lets air travellers transfer to a train upon arrival within five European countries. Currently, the service covers routes linking Brussels, Manchester, Rome Fiumicino and Zurich airports to nearby cities such as Rotterdam, York, Bologna and Bern.
Although banning short-haul flights will surely contribute to immediate advantages in carbon-cutting efforts in the long term, the aviation industry will continue to face the issue of high carbon emissions and need further attention. Costs, the efficiency of national rail services and politics will remain concurrent to the choice of banning short-haul flights in favour of rail options.
Claudia Gualdi is our Greece-based COVID Team Lead. Baya Faure, Catherine Soltero and Farhan Rafi contributed to this article.