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Colombia Expected to Lift Air Restrictions Sept. 1

Madhu Unnikrishnan

August 18th, 2020

Colombia is expected to allow air travel to resume on Sept. 1, despite murmuring that the date my be pushed back further. But the country won’t re-open all at once. Colombia, unlike most other countries in the world, is leaving the decision to re-start air travel to municipalities.

This presented a challenge in the country’s busiest airport, Bogota’s El Dorado International Airport. The city’s mayor has taken an aggressive stance against re-opening and is limiting flights to three cities in Colombia: Leticia, Cartagena, and San Andres, according to the airport. International flights will remain grounded except for humanitarian and cargo operations. (Meanwhile, IATA reports that the mayor of Cartagena has asked for permission to allow international flights to nine destinations in North and South America.)

Even this re-opening was a bit fraught for the airlines. Bogota’s mayor first mandated that airlines should be responsible for contact tracing of passengers arriving in the city for 10 days after landing. Not only was this a request that no other local government in the world had made, it would simply not make flights to the city viable, said Peter Cerdá, IATA regional vice president-the Americas, on the Airline Weekly podcast. “Contact tracing should be the responsibility of the [country’s] health ministry.”

The central government overrode the mayor’s demand, Cerdá said, and flights will resume without requiring airlines to conduct contact tracing. But the dust-up illustrates an issue with air transport in the region. Governments in Latin America long have seen airlines as the preserve of the rich, not a public utility, and have imposed onerous restrictions and taxes on the industry. And in the Covid era, Latin American governments have been stingy with aid to airlines. Less than 1% of all government airline aid worldwide has come from governments in Latin America. This puts the region’s airline at a severe disadvantage, Cerdá said.

The industry’s recovery in the region will be later than elsewhere, given the disease’s spread, and it will be staggered. Some of the most stringent restrictions in the world are in Latin America. To cite a few examples, Argentina is completely closed to air travel, and Panama is re-opening in September, but is allowing passengers only to transit through Tocumen, not enter the country. Chile is restricting entry only to Chilean nationals and permanent residents.

When the pandemic recedes and restrictions are lifted, will airlines recover and grow in the region? Cerdá thinks the challenges are twofold. First, governments need to understand how important air transport is for economic growth and shouldn’t treat the industry as a “cash cow,” he said. Second, airlines need to up their messaging game, convincing potential passengers that air travel — in a region with poor rail and road infrastructure and difficult terrain — is a faster, and often cheaper, alternative to long-distance buses, he said.

Madhu Unnikrishnan

August 18th, 2020

Photo credit:  El Dorado International Airport (Bogota)

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