Among the sectors that have been dramatically affected by the global Covid-19 epidemic, civil aviation seems to be the biggest casualty. During the first months of the outbreak, planes were grounded almost completely, and as time went by, and numbers of new cases began dropping in various countries, the sky started to reopen, slowly. And this gradualness is apparent to travelers, business entities and mostly, for the airlines. Numbers of flights are still significantly lower than in previous years, with many airlines across the world suffering huge losses (Delta Airlines lost $ 5.7 billion in one quarter) and even declaring bankruptcy (including Virgin Atlantic, Latam, etc.).
For many, the field of civil aviation is mainly linked to vacations abroad. But the field is in fact closely linked to economic development, enabling the creation of global business connections, and of course, is at the heart of the field of tourism, which supports millions of people around the world, and more specifically across Africa. Without a groundbreaking solution, the damage to airlines could be unbearable, and many more companies will soon go bankrupt. And the damage goes far beyond these airlines employing tens of thousands of employees. Millions will suffer from the impact on economic and social development, which peaked in recent years and established a better reality in Sub Saharan Africa.
Tremendous losses, a vague future
17,912,857 people flew to / from sub-Saharan Africa in 2000, and by 2010, the number grew by 10 million passengers, reaching 27,748,907. But the real leap has been recorded over the past decade: in 2018 no less than 63,070,540 people flew across SSA. The increasing numbers go hand in hand with the data of economic development, the increase in the number of businesses, tourists arriving in the region, and more.
The growing numbers helped local airlines to gain international status. Ethiopian Airlines is now considered a leading force in the global aviation world, and in recent years companies such as Rwandair and Kenya Airways have also gained momentum. According to a report by the aircraft manufacturer Airbus, by 2038, eight “aviation mega-hubs’’ will operate in Africa, with cities like Lagos, Accra and Nairobi joining Addis-Ababa.
Now, the future of Africa’s aviation sector is vague. Aviation analyst Michael Darchin estimated in an interview with the New York Times that airlines will take no less than 7 years to recover, and according to the IATA (International Air Transport Association) forecast, world airlines are expected to lose a total of $ 84.3 billion during the year, with a 50% drop in revenue.
The main concern of the airlines does not relate to the flight ban announced by many countries with the outbreak of the coronavirus. They are worried about the reluctance of consumers to fly, especially due to the difficulty of maintaining social distance within the plane, as passengers share limited common space and one central ventilation system. And when airlines have no way of knowing for sure whether Corona patients have boarded their flight, many passengers prefer not to take the risk, and stay at home.
The solution is just around the corner
The civil aviation field is already accustomed to complex logistical efforts. In the past, there have been concerns that security threats (weapons or bombs) could damage the sector. Airlines and airports around the world learned the challenge, and over the years new technologies have been added, now allowing for “sterilization” - making sure that all passengers who have gone through the security process do not carry weapons or explosives. The process, which began with a simple manual inspection, became more sophisticated and technology-based with the help of magnetometers, “chemical sniffers” for detecting explosives, sophisticated mirror devices, and more.
Now, the aviation field is required to make a similar effort against a new enemy: Covid-19. Various technologies are already in advanced stages of development, and are expected to allow the same “sterilization” - and to make sure that all passengers who board the plane are healthy.
Same tests, but much faster. One of the most practical options uses the same technique of tests that exist today, but allows for much more tests to be held in a much shorter period of time. Different companies (such as LessTests, for example) allow “pull testing”: a process in which instead of testing one sample at a time, the testing device combines dozens of samples and tests them together. The algorithm developed by the company enables tests to be performed at a much higher rate and in a shorter period of time - thus enabling airports to “filter” thousands of passengers in just one hour.
Saliva tests. One of the most promising developments in non-invasive testing are saliva-based tests, which provide an answer within minutes (and even less) and are much more affordable than the tests we are familiar with today. With the help of blowing devices (similar to those that examine the amount of alcohol and used by the police), soon it will be possible to diagnose Covid-19 patients within a few minutes and at a low cost, and prevent them from boarding a flight.
Voice-based diagnosis. This may sound like a story taken from a science fiction book, but it is actually an advanced technology that may be used in the near future. Different companies from around the world (such as Vocalis) are developing smart algorithms that identify Covid-19 patients by analyzing their voice. With the technology, passengers will be able to simply have a short conversation, while the algorithm and the AI will analyze their voice and alert in case of suspicion of a patient.
The implementation of these and other solutions will require significant logistical effort, investment of budgets, and of course, full cooperation of the passengers. With all of these, airlines will be able to make sure that only Covid-19-free people get on planes, ensuring the health of all passengers and stopping the spread of the virus around the world. Only in this way will we be able to rehabilitate the field of civil aviation, assist the affected companies, and restore one of the cornerstones of economic development.