2021 did not end in the way that any of us had hoped, in terms of where we wanted the aviation sector to be, or the ability to freely spend time with family and friends, unincumbered by the guidance to take a lateral flow test before leaving our homes to protect loved ones.
Operators, whilst remaining cautious, are seeing bookings pick up in the first month of 2022 easyJet reported a 200% increase in bookings, rising to 400% for some destinations. Jet2.com stated that bookings had risen by 150% in the run up to the changes in travel rules resulting in travelers no longer being required to undergo pre-departure tests to arrive in the UK, and the easing of requirements for post arrival tests. Operators are also beginning to re-establish their pilot numbers.
For our pilot members, we can be cautiously optimistic based on what we know today. The Omicron variant was a threat to Christmas. Transmissibility appears to be higher than the Delta variant, but generally cases are less severe and without the high level of hospitalisation we saw at the ‘peak’ of the pandemic. Whether this is inherent to the strain, or whether it is as a result of the vaccination drive in the UK, we cannot be certain. We are told that the third ‘booster’ offers good protection for Omicron.
A report by Imperial College London (Report 50), estimates that Omicron cases have a 20%-25% reduced risk of any hospitalisation, and 40%-45% reduced risk of a hospitalisation of one or more nights. With the potential to reduce isolation periods in positive cases to seven days (subject to negative lateral flow tests 24 hours apart on days 6 and 7), travel plans going forward may face less risk of disruption. Confidence in booking is helped by companies adopting a more flexible approach with their booking terms and conditions to take into account last minute changes.
A barrier for UK aviation will, potentially long term, be the entry requirements to other countries. Whilst some European countries are relaxing and reviewing their rules, we do not know whether they might be subject to short notice change in the event of a further wave in the country, or should a new variant emerge. Long haul remains more uncertain, particularly those countries which have taken a robust, possibly draconian stance to the pandemic and which continue to have rigorous entry requirements, such as Australia.
From a union perspective, pilots continue to join the Independent Pilots Association, from across the UK aviation sector, both fixed wing and rotary. We continue to support members who face difficulties in their employment. Whilst we hope that the situation for pilots will begin to stabilise, we know that employers continue to look at ways to reduce costs, and there will continue to be a period of uncertainty. We have been able to support several newer members who joined before any processes commenced within their employment. We have also represented long standing members who, before the covid pandemic treated their IPA membership as an insurance – there if they needed us, which proves the value of membership. We must reiterate that we can only support members who do not have a pre-existing employment issue at the point of joining, which is why union membership is so important going forward.