Mexico pretended nothing was happening, Argentina appealed for a hermetic closure and in Colombia decisions of national impact were delegated to the mayors: the coronavirus crisis in Latin America and the Caribbean is seriously affecting airports , vital in countries of enormous extension and neglected today in many cases. So much so that there are fears for the disappearance of some of the smallest.
"It is a dramatic situation, something like this has never happened. We had grown a little more than three percent in January compared to the previous year and four percent in February. In June we had a 95 percent drop in activity" Rafael Echevarne, the Spaniard who is director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Airports Council International (ACI) , says in amazement . During his interview with El Mundo, Echevarne gives multiple examples of the vertical drop in activity and the difficulties that some governments in the region have to understand the consequences of their most drastic decisions. Argentina, for example, which maintains an indefinite closure of national and international flights.What is the most surprising thing about the decisions of governments in Latin America and the Caribbean? Mexico is an interesting country, the only one in the world where air transport did not have any type of barrier. In the United States, limits were placed on flights to some countries, not in Mexico. Mexico is still open, was the message: let whoever come and let whoever come out. That does not mean that traffic did not drop dramatically, up to 80 percent in some Mexican destinations, because many people did not want to travel and others could not leave their countries. In Brazil, domestic traffic has been maintained, as in Chile. In the rest of the region there has been a total restriction, zero passenger activity, although there have been flights for the export or the repatriation of people. Ecuador is the first country to reopen international and domestic air transport, but the response has not been spectacular because a series of restrictions are imposed, a quarantine upon arrival in Ecuador. Argentina closed completely and prohibited the sale of tickets until September 1, What logic did they find in that decision? It was quite surprising, because it was the first country to announce that international flights would be resumed for such a late date, September 1. We and IATA express our surprise and concern at this closure. We were very surprised. We believe that air transport is very important for the economy, and in Latin America there is no real alternative, the distances are enormous. And we are surprised that domestic flights have not yet been restored in a country the size of Argentina. In Colombia, they also proposed closure until September and we are surprised that the decision to resume domestic flights has been left to the mayors, which creates many tensions and political battles. If the mayor of Bogotá, for example, decides not to open the airport, that has a tremendous impact on all of Colombia. The truth is that the closure of air transport is going to contribute tremendously to the economic crisis that is coming. The fact that airports are not opened has a tremendous impact. What is the situation in Venezuela? I don't have much information about Venezuela, it is a country that finds it difficult to share information. What future do you foresee? It is important to bear in mind that never in the history of aviation has there been a similar situation. Never since 1903 when the Wright brothers first flew. Even in World War II, commercial aviation continued in non-conflict countries. This year, in Latin America and the Caribbean, traffic is going to fall by at least 50 percent. Every day that passes and air transport is not reactivated, the situation worsens. We can reach a 70 percent drop in the volume of activity compared to what we had in 2019. Latin American airports are going to enter 6,000 million dollars less than last year. Normally they enter 11,000 million. Are airports going to disappear? There it depends on the decisions that governments make, because in Latin America the financial support of governments for airports and companies has been minimal. Latam and Avianca, the two largest airlines in the region, are in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Aerolineas Argentinas and Copa are taking adjustment measures. Airports are open, yes, but there is a real chance that airports could go bankrupt in the face of the tremendous reduction in cash flow. Small, independent airports are going to have a very difficult situation, not only because of what they lost this year, but because airlines are not going to fly as much as they used to. Countries cannot afford to have large airports disappear, but the airports in Chile and Argentina that work with winter tourism, that of ski resorts, suffer enormously this year. How are they going to take care of passengers once that they begin to return to the airports? We have a responsibility to ensure the health of passengers and those who work in the industry, and we have developed protocols to avoid contagion. As far as possible, because inside the plane or when you are boarding you can maintain that distance of one and a half or two meters, just as you cannot in the supermarket. We seek that only those who are going to fly enter the airport. In Argentina, for example, screens have been installed in check-in areas to protect employees and passengers. But the most important thing is the use of the chinstrap and the cleaning protocols. And we recommend taking the temperature, which, although not a conclusive measure, gives confidence to the population. Rapid tests are not great guarantees, and could lead to more congestion as traffic grows. Did this crisis situation accelerate processes and reflections on the airport of the future? We are aware that the governments of Latin America do not they have the financial availability of the United States and Europe, which is also why Latin America has more private airports than the rest of the world. But we ask for facilities in the payment of the concession fee. In Brazil the government has allowed them to be paid at the end of the year. Or delay investments in infrastructure, which are very expensive. What we ask governments is that they allow the need and urgency of carrying out these works to be reassessed, because we believe that it will take between two and three years to recover what was lost. Although it sounds crazy, is there something positive that this unprecedented crisis has brought? Technology, which is a great ally. A good example is the Montevideo airport, which is at the forefront of technology. You don't have to touch the kiosks, you can enter the country without having a conversation with the immigration person, and that works partially in Argentina as well. Those technologies are going to become much more visible at airports. In Montevideo you can board without touching absolutely any screen. Will the airport of the future be bigger or smaller? It's a very good question. It is known that the size of an airport depends on the amount of traffic it must absorb at rush hour, on how much traffic there will be at peak time. If you insist that at each moment there must be a meter and a half or two between each person, forget it, that airport would have to be huge. That is why we tell the countries that the important thing is the use of the chinstrap and cleanliness, not so much the distance, because it is impossible to guarantee that there is always two meters of distance between airports. And that is impossible in airports, on airplanes, in supermarkets, in banks and anywhere else. If possible we will do it, but it will not always be possible. We block seats in the waiting area, but when entering the plane you cannot have that distance all the time, because the infrastructure does not allow it. Imagine the buses ... But I insist: a positive thing has been the level of collaboration between the different players in the industry. And if there were questions about the technology, facial recognition, avoid touching ... Now we know that that works and that it can be used. Please do not hinder it, it is a help. When the passenger traffic returns to full, those blocked seats at airports could be a problem ... Blocking seats is very good now, in this transition phase, because there are no crowds of people. As traffic resumes, all these measures must be reassessed. Governments must understand that measures cannot be static. Screens? There are proposals of all kinds. Airports and airplanes are the safest places to be today. I have not seen the strict follow-up of the protocols there anywhere, and if a plane is not full it distances itself from the passengers, but if it is full, it is impossible. The airline industry could not survive if seats were forced to be vacated. It is impossible.
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