As New Zealand begins to open up to international travel – slowly – all the signs are that there are a range of factors that will continue to prove challenging. And some new concerns.
The Economist, in a piece titled "international travel will get easier but restrictions will remain" on November 20, noted that only three countries have fully open borders whilst 88 countries remain closed. They anticipate that international travel will not return to pre-Covid levels until 2023 or 2024.
That aligns with the projections from a range of other organisations, including the UN World Tourist Association through to Deloittes.
This is not helped by the fourth wave of Covid which has countries around the world reassessing the easing of lockdown measures. One of those is Singapore, which opened up a couple of months ago, domestically and internationally. But the recent spike in daily cases and hospitalisations, despite a high vaccination rate and clear protocols for international arrivals, has brought a rethink.
Perhaps one of the biggest failures has been to agree on what is acceptable in terms of risk identification and alleviation measures when travelling internationally. Many airports and airlines now specify what is required of those working in the industry or those travelling. But there is little harmonisation.
And even when there are requirements, there is variable observance.
This has become very obvious in a lengthy, and often spirited, discussion on Twitter. Dan Rather (yes, Dan Rather, the journalist and broadcaster) asked on November 22, "which airlines seem to take Covid protocols seriously, and which do not?" in a Tweet.
He certainly got some answers.
Most of the discussion concerned American airlines but the same issues apply generally.
The first question was whether there were clear guidelines in place when it comes to vaccinations and then what else is required. It appears that most airlines do have rules (Alaska Airlines: "No mask, no travel, no exceptions") but that actually following these rules was quite another matter.
On masks, for example, those tweeting certainly did not regard onboard breaches as amusing.
The "maskholes" - those who decline to wear masks or who spend so much time pretending to eat or drink ("fake eating") or wear their masks at half-mast ("I am seeing some cute noses but cover them up!") – are seen as a risk to other passengers.
There are a number of airlines – most named for Dan's benefit - who appear unwilling to monitor or to insist on appropriate mask-wearing during a flight.
This is only a small part of the concerns expressed. Does the airline use medical-grade HEPA air filters; do they regularly sanitise the cabin; what happens at check-in and then when boarding in terms of checking vaccine status, or health generally; what sort of masks are acceptable (there is whole discussion about double-masking); are goggles recommended; and should the unvaccinated even be allowed on planes?
It might be helpful for someone to rank airlines and airports on their Covid policies and
Nick Careen, who is a specialist on biosecurity for air travel with IATA, noted that in order to restore air connectivity, systems needed to be "internationally consistent, mutually accepted and harmonised". For him, this included pre-flight procedures, check-in, the processes at the departure airport, boarding, what happens during the flight and then at the arrival airport.
It certainly appears as though a number of headwinds – a new surge in Covid, the still limited facilities available, both on the ground and in terms of flights, the failure to agree on or align global risk measures, the lack of good practice at departure or inflight and the anxiety that this creates – will continue to impact on international travel for some time yet.
The "freedom to" do something, in this case to travel, still competes with the "freedom
from" a rampant and dangerous virus.
• Distinguished Professor Emeritus Paul Spoonley, Massey University, is part of an international group considering mobility in a Covid world.