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Rebuilding Public Trust in International Aviation: An Opportunity for U.S.-Canada Leadership

Canada and the United States rely heavily on air transport to ensure economies of both countries are supported. In 2019, approximately 28 million passengers travelled by air between both countries for a variety of reasons: business, tourism, and visiting friends and family. Air cargo is also a critical part of e-commerce, supply-chain logistics networks as well as a channel to build upon new trade agreements.

Canada and the United States rely heavily on air transport to ensure economies of both countries are supported. In 2019, approximately 28 million passengers travelled by air between both countries for a variety of reasons: business, tourism, and visiting friends and family. Air cargo is also a critical part of e-commerce, supply-chain logistics networks as well as a channel to build upon new trade agreements.

Immediate Impact of COVID-19

Will this grind to a halt with the impacts of COVID-19? Unlikely. Evidence has shown that irrespective of whether you subscribe to a U, V or L-shaped recovery scenario, there will be an eventual resumption of air traffic. The recovery could take several years depending on whether a second or third wave of infections result.

In the near term, the emergency cessation of flights resulting from strict border controls and other travel restrictions have shut down services significantly. For example, the total number of scheduled flights for the month of April are expected to decline by almost 78% year-over-year, and 10 of the 16 airlines previously offering transborder connectivity have already halted operations. The remaining airlines continue to cut capacity, particularly in key markets such as Toronto-New York (-81%) and Vancouver-Los Angeles (-78%).

The sharp decline in transborder air services also means that valuable cargo space is lost at least for the foreseeable future, thus negatively impacting the carriage of high-value goods such as optical, medical and surgical equipment and pharmaceuticals (total value of 7 billion USD in 2019) and the existing supply chain.  

The Need to Rebuild Public Trust in Air Travel

According to a recent report by the World Economic Forum, the number and diversity of epidemic events has increased over the past 30 years. This means that managing risks and mitigating the economic and social impact of future outbreaks will be at the centre of the public policy agenda. The current context offers a great opportunity for our countries to reassert their historic leadership in international aviation and propose global solutions.

Rebuilding public trust in international aviation in a post-COVID-19 world will depend on how effective governments become in controlling the spread of the virus at home and what type of measures are implemented to minimize the risks of future outbreaks. For the airline industry, an uncoordinated or uneven relaxation of travel restrictions in key aviation markets is likely to handicap indefinitely the potential of the industry to generate economic and social benefits.

Pre-departure Measures to Come

Canada and the United States are already at the forefront of a preclearance framework to address a range of aviation and border security threats: we have done so since 1952. In a post-COVID-19 world, so too must an approach be taken to deal with potential threats before a flight departs – whether it is a flight within a country or across multiple countries.

Many have focused on a purely technological solution. This may well be adequate to interdict the boarding of passengers already exhibiting symptoms. However, for asymptomatic cases, improvements in processes, technologies and training of staff will be important to minimize the risks of disease spread throughout the whole aviation ecosystem and beyond. In most cases, catching potential threats on arrival is unfortunately too late.

Today, less than 1% of movements are cleared before departures in aviation: the vast majority of border clearance activities happen on arrival. No industry recovery will be sustainable unless travelers feel confident that the necessary measures have been put in place to minimize the risks of contagion before, during, and after their flight. Canada and the United States should take this opportunity to reassert their historic leadership in international aviation and lead the changes in people/processes and technologies to build a more resilient aviation system.

Canada-U.S. Transborder Capacity Maps:  April 2019 vs. April 2020
April 2019

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April 2020

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Canada Institute

Bound by common geopolitical interests and strong economic and cultural ties, Canada and the United States enjoy the world's most successful bilateral relationship. The Wilson Center's Canada Institute is the only public policy forum in the world dedicated to the full spectrum of Canada-U.S. issues. The Canada Institute is a global leader for policymakers, academics and business leaders to engage in non-partisan, informed dialogue about the current and future state of the relationship.     Read more