The Corona Pandemic – An ongoing IrOp?

by Jan Uphues
(c) gmast3r - Getty Images

An Irregular Operation (IrOp) is an inconvenient, yet everyday thing in aviation. Be it previous delays, bad weather, strikes or technical defects, the cost-intensive IroPs usually remain within a manageable range. Things look a bit different in the case of long term disruptions, for example when an entire airline goes bankrupt and has to stay on the ground indefinitely. It’s even worse when countries or even entire continents are affected by armed conflicts or pandemics.

It started in late December 2019, initially unnoticed, in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The previously unknown Corona virus disease Covid-19 quickly spread beyond the city limits and soon went abroad. Even though the symptoms and course of the disease are often milder than with normal flu, people died of it. China reacted with drastic measures: First Wuhan, later other cities were quarantined. As early as January 25, 2020, the authorities expanded quarantine measures that affected approximately 56 million people in 18 cities in China. With the virus already spreading to other parts of the world, the WHO announced to the Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).

Economic IrOp Impacts

Measures like these naturally have a strong impact on the economy, shipping and public transport. Companies like Nike, Apple and Starbucks are expecting their turnover to drop this year due to the Corona virus epidemic. The effects on the aviation industry are particularly strong. Major airlines such as Lufthansa, Air France and British Airways announced in January that they would cancel all direct connections to China. According to the International Civil Aviation Association (ICAO), by February 2020, 70 airlines had stopped all flights to and from China due to the new Corona virus. Another 50 airlines reduced their traffic to and from China. People who were in China in recent weeks were brought back to their home countries by government charter flights from Germany, Japan, New Zealand and many other countries, and were also quarantined by arrival. All of these measures are designed to protect people's lives and health and prevent the virus from further spreading.

Of course, the fates of the patients are in the focus of the media and our own thinking, which is a sign of humanity – we simply care about other people. But there are also other aspects worth considering. Every epidemic or even pandemic is also a logistical challenge in the field of aviation. It’s nothing more and nothing less than irregular operation (irops) to a very large extent. It’s not comparable to a local strike or heavy weather. The entire aviation industry needs to react quickly and do what’s best in humanitarian, logistical and economic terms.

Prepare the Unpredictable

In his book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable”, the author and former options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb focuses on the extreme impact of rare and unpredictable outlier events, so called Black Swan events which are named after the extremely rare birds. A central idea in his book is not to attempt to predict Black Swan events, but to build robustness to negative events and an ability to exploit positive events. Although the book rather relates to financial markets and the stock exchange, I find the idea quite compelling: what if we were no longer preparing for specific events that we cannot predict anyway, but would give the robustness to the aviation system that would allow us to cope with these unpredictable events? In a nutshell: we know that viral diseases will occur, we just don't know where or when. That’s why we need to be prepared.

After the global outbreak of the SARS virus (which seems genetically closely related to the new, unknown Corona virus), health authorities and disaster control authorities agreed on a coordinated approach for future events. International airports play a special role here. In pandemics, they are a gateway for viruses to spread over long distances. Regarding this, a lot of research on this topic has been done in the past few years.

One finding has been that bacteria might not always appear in the most obvious places at airports. British and Finnish researchers found that half of plastic luggage trays at airport security were harboring at least one respiratory disease, such as influenza or the common cold. Another study found that the bacteria level on touching surfaces such as self-Check-in touchscreens, airline gate bench armrests or water fountain buttons are more than 1,000 times (!) higher than that on toilet seats. A good hygiene is obviously a major issue in terms of precautionary measures at airports. So, what’s to be done? Hartfield Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, US, has invested in a smart restroom software. Sensors fitted in bathrooms at the airport keep count of the number of passengers using facilities and send an email alert to supervisors when it’s time for a clean-up. It’s a clever and farsighted step but it shouldn’t be the only one. Ilpo Kulmala, a research scientist at the VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland, demands a multidiscipline approach. “We need to involve several actors in the feat, including the operators and public health authorities and other actors at the airport.” As infections can spread mainly through the air or by touching things, automatic doors can be a simple, obvious concept to enable passengers to walk through an airport without touching too many things. Additionally, the installation of hand disinfection areas in arrival zones has proven to be helpful. Now that the new Corona virus is spreading, several major European, Asian and American airports have set up screening stations for arriving passengers from China.

Learnings from the Past

We see, a lot of things are happening and will in the future. From all we’ve learned about past pandemic episodes, there’s a glimpse of hope. The airline industry has proven resilient to IrOps and greater shocks, including pandemics, according to IATA Economics. For instance, in the outbreak of SARS, monthly international passenger traffic returned to its pre-crisis level within nine months. Nevertheless, the very strong growth of the Chinese air transport market over recent years means that an additional 450 million passengers fly to, from and within China per year compared to a decade ago. Unfortunately, the timing of this outbreak also coincides with the Chinese New Year celebrations and China’s busiest travel season, which affects the aviation industry heavily: The ICAO expects the Corona virus outbreak in China to cut revenue by up to 5 billion $ for airlines worldwide. But still, while there are risks that this outbreak could cause a sizeable disruption, history indicates that any effect on air transport would be temporary.

Are you afraid of the Covid-19 or do you feel comfortable and optimistic? Is it only a huge IrOp? Let us know!

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About the author

  • Jan Uphues

    Jan Uphues started working as Marketing Manager in INFORM’s Aviation Division in 2018. He particularly enjoys the “Max Thrust!” moment on the runway.

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