The body representing the global airline industry has warned a recovery in travel to pre-coronavirus levels is not likely to happen until 2024, and is increasingly anxious to see border restrictions and quarantine measures eased.
But while blaming poor virus containment and weaker consumer confidence for the delay in recovery from its previous 2023 estimate, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said pilots and cabin crew should not be tested for Covid-19 as a prerequisite for working.
New measures introduced by the Hong Kong government, which took effect on Wednesday, require aircrew to take a virus test before they fly and have proof of a negative result.
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But the IATA insisted aircrew were not a risk as they tend to be “isolated from the general population” and as such it did not support “general testing of crew as a prerequisite”.
However, a strain of the virus found in local patients was discovered to be similar to one collected from a pilot arriving from Kazakhstan who stayed at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Causeway Bay, and a FedEx pilot from the US tested positive for Covid-19, but not before he took a walk around the city and ate in a local restaurant.
And last weekend, another pilot from the United States went sightseeing at The Peak despite not having received the all-clear from the test he was given on arrival at Hong Kong International Airport.
On Tuesday, Hong Kong recorded 106 new cases of Covid-19, taking the total number in the city to 2,884, with 23 related fatalities.
“In general the crew tend to be isolated from the general population, and there have been some measures to try and make sure crew are contained within their hotels while on layover,” Tony Concil, the association’s vice-president for corporate communications, said.
The new regulations are part of strict new measures introduced in Hong Kong to combat a third wave of infections, and also includes limiting gatherings to no more than two, and banning dine-in at restaurants.
While objecting to aircrew testing, Alexandre de Juniac, the IATA’s director general and CEO, said he supported the testing of passengers flying between countries with high infection rates.
The industry body has previously supported preflight virus tests for travellers, which Hong Kong recently brought into force for designated high-risk countries.
In a statement released overnight, the Hong Kong government said the city was at a “critical juncture” in its fight against the virus, which has seen the number of new cases rise by more than 100 a day for the past week.
“Although the testing and quarantine arrangements will have an impact on the aviation and maritime industry, we consider it necessary to adopt stringent measures at this time,” it said.
Since July 8, authorities had made it mandatory for air and sea crew to be tested upon arrival at the airport, but they were not required to wait for test results like the general public, and did not have rules regarding their movements imposed on them.
The large number of positive cases among those who were tested upon arrival in the city has given rise to a growing weight of evidence that vast numbers of silent carriers slipped through the net, contributing to the most serious surge in infections.
Aircrew and maritime workers are on Hong Kong’s exempt list of people who would otherwise not be permitted to enter the city, or would have to quarantine for 14 days. More than 250,000 people on the list entered Hong Kong between February and June.
A team of researchers at Polytechnic University examined virus strains in more than 20 patients which shared similarities with imported cases, in findings unveiled on Tuesday, offering evidence that imported cases may be responsible for the city’s surge in Covid-19 infections.
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