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Re-opening EU Borders in the Recovery: A COVID-19 Operational Conundrum

By  Brussels,

In mid-March, EU Member States closed their borders one after the other, in a completely uncoordinated way. In an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19, citizens’ freedom of movement — a cornerstone of the European project — disappeared overnight. Many of us who grew up with this freedom quickly realised how truly important it is — and how desperately we wanted it back.

In the last few weeks, the European Commission aimed to coordinate the process of re-opening both internal and external EU borders. The goal was to provide clarity and predictability both to EU citizens and air transport operators, and to support Europe’s economic recovery.

In its Recommendation, the EU Council endorsed the now-famous “white list”Non-EU countries whose citizens are able to enter the EU, currently including: Algeria, Australia, Canada, Georgia, Japan, Montenegro, Morocco, New Zealand, Rwanda, Serbia, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia, Uruguay — and China, should reciprocity of measures be confirmed. of 15 countries to and from which the EU travel ban could be lifted as of 1 July. This list is based on epidemiological evidence, health measures in place and containment measures during travel. However, just one week since its publication, Member States’ adherence to the white list is completely diverging.

There is a lack of clarity and significant uncertainty on which citizens can travel where. This has led to a patchwork system of travel restrictions and border controls throughout Europe which may remain in place for weeks or months to come.

The situation is weakening the Schengen area, as all internal borders are not even re-opened. It is also creating an uneven playing field for airlines in Europe: with Member States applying different rules, a Japanese tourist could fly to Warsaw and then travel within the Schengen area without controls, for example.

In this context, we need EU states to tone down the politics and follow their agreed, fact-based approach towards lifting the EU travel ban for those countries where the epidemiological situation allows. In the coming week, expansion of the white list to other countries is necessary to support air transport and tourism’s much-needed recovery, which in turn will drive the EU’s broader economic recovery.

Within EU borders, a different set of challenges is emerging. Since the gradual re-opening of intra-EU borders for non-essential travel on 15 June, virtually every Member State is now issuing its own passenger health questionnaire. That’s 27 different forms which travellers have to complete, and which airlines are being asked to police. Some come with paper and pen, others work via a QR code. Besides the fact that a paperwork requirement increases the risk of virus transmission, in many cases airlines are expected to print these forms themselves!

A4E urges the national authorities to provide the health questionnaires to passengers directly and to take the necessary steps to introduce digital-only versions as a matter of priority. A standardised e-version would facilitate boarding throughout Europe — ideally using the existing ICAO standardPublic Health Passenger Locator Form: The paper questionnaire should remain in place for exceptional cases only, e.g. for passengers without a mobile phone.

When it comes to when and how these health questionnaires must be submitted to the authorities — again here we have diverging national approaches. Spain, for instance, has announced the introduction of a mandatory e-form as of 01 September. Currently passengers must complete an online “health control form” and receive a QR code 48 hours before arrival to show to the border guards, while  Greece requires passengers to fill out their questionnaire 24 hours before boarding. A passenger who forgets to do this on time could be fined €500! In addition, airlines have been warned that they could lose their license to fly should too many of their passengers not comply with this requirement. Airlines should not be held liable for this. Our role is to inform passengers about the rules and to share the relevant information with the authorities. This general principle should not be challenged by the COVID-19 crisis.

These operational issues are causing additional costs for airlines, at a time when many are still struggling to survive. Member States should bear the costs for these measures — not airlines. Such requirements are also making it impossible for flights to depart on time and are therefore having a knock-on effect in other areas. The situation is intensifying in select EU countries and needs to be addressed before passenger traffic increases in the coming weeks.

Finally, information sharing during a crisis is critical. Airlines are not receiving prior notification of new rules as they are announced — so there is virtually no time to inform passengers in advance. For example, the UK relaxed its quarantine requirements for some countries per an announcement on 10 July – but A4E airlines are yet to receive any official notice on this.

As Europe’s borders gradually reopen, the need for an intensified coordination and harmonised approach between Member States is essential. A4E is calling on EU leaders to:

  • Do away with the politics and follow their agreed, evidence-based approach towards lifting the EU travel ban for countries where the epidemiological situation allows;
  • Expand the white list as appropriate to other non-EU countries to support air transport and tourism’s recovery;
  • Provide timely and official information to airlines regarding key operational changes;
  • Directly provide passengers with a single digital solution for submitting public health passenger locator information, with governments bearing the costs;
  • Strengthen freedom of movement in Europe by investing in a unique Europe-wide contact tracing application for air travellers.

European aviation remains in a severe and unprecedented crisis. Lack of action to address these mounting operational challenges will only add to the currently projected €19 billion in losses for EU carriers this year. Governments have an opportunity to use the crisis to restore our beloved single aviation market and bring back freedom of movement in a healthy and transparent way. Isn’t it worth it?