March 23, 2022
The long shadow of COVID-19 has dramatically changed international travel. Long-standing processes and procedures that had made cross-border and transoceanic travel almost seamless have been replaced by a fractured system of national and regional rules and regulations that can change with little notice. But, as during other global crises, international operators have proven resilient, adapting quickly and decisively to maintain the highest level of safety for passengers and crew while accommodating the realities of this new operating environment.
Setting Up for Success
“Flying internationally always required extra planning, but the challenge and concern for us during the pandemic has been our ability to ensure we set ourselves up for success for our arrival,” explains Chad Patnode, flight operations manager at Pfizer. “There have been, and continue to be, a lot of unknowns when operating internationally – especially if it is a destination we have not been to for some time – so we have to adapt to build informed and workable processes.”
According to Dave Paddock, president of Basel, Switzerland-based Jet Aviation, knowledge of a destination’s COVID testing and admissions requirements must now be a staple of every international flight plan. This practice, however, presents its own demands, he notes, adding that “the changing nature of testing requirements and the fact that different countries institute them at different times and choose to stop doing them at different times creates a challenging environment to navigate.”
“Access to tests can be restricted if local demands are high. Depending on the country, you might find rapid tests are difficult to access ”
Cynthia C. E. de Oliveira Operations Director, Líder Aviação
This hurdle, however, is likely to become less problematic as national regulators increasingly are turning to risk-based entry requirements, rather than the more stringent quarantine restrictions of the past two years, says Paddock.
Until then, though, international operators will have to be wary about their ability to access COVID-19 tests, says Cynthia C. E. de Oliveira, operations director at Brazilian air charter, aircraft sales and maintenance organization Líder Aviação. “Access to tests can be restricted if local demands are high. Depending on the country, you might find rapid tests are difficult to access, or it might be difficult to find an appropriate slot at a laboratory. So, booking in advance is important,” she notes.
Quarantines and Entry Requirements
Quarantine planning is also a priority for international operators. As de Oliveria explains, this goes far beyond being informed about how long a passenger or crew member must remain under quarantine.
“You need to find out if your health insurance covers the country you are going to, and will you require local assistance? Do you need complementary assistance insurance, and, if so, does that cover the longer stays typically required of quarantines? Questions like these now need to be answered before that international flight departs,” she says.
Determining entry requirements is also more complex because of the pandemic, notes Julie Ambrose, director of aviation at Asian aviation and security specialists, The ASA Group. “Each country has its own set of entry requirements. Some are at the permit application stage, while some countries even determine if you qualify to land in the country before the permit applications. Things need to be checked and rechecked continually as the requirements can change with little advance notice.”
“Each country has its own set of entry requirements. Some are at the permit application stage, while some countries even determine if you qualify to land in the country before the permit applications.”
Julie Ambrose Director of Aviation, The ASA Group
The pandemic has required a wholesale overhaul of legacy routines. While handlers are still a vital source of information for every flight planner, operators are now advised to corroborate entry requirements through a series of additional resources. NBAA is a good resource for high-level information, as are international service providers, but it is also prudent for operators to use government websites – such as the U.S. State Department’s site – to determine the most up-to-date entry requirements for each destination.
NOTAMs also provide important information, both for the technical details they contain and because they provide guidance for crews, rather than the passenger entry requirements typically found in other resources.
Customs offices also can be helpful, as they can review a flight’s documentation – from arrival and departure details to passport data – well in advance of a flight to provide guidance on what additional materials will be required during the entry process.
“It all comes down to building a robust network. Make as many friends as you can,” says Patnode.
Local Knowledge Key
Local support is an essential part of the network. “I cannot understate the importance of having access to local knowledge,” says Paddock. “Whether it’s a handler or an FBO, if you want to operate successfully in today’s environment, you will need help navigating the local market. It also helps to have access to boots on the ground through someone you already have a working relationship with,” he adds.
The pandemic has also impacted crew behaviors. Some operators now ask crew members to limit their movements during a stopover and consider dining in a hotel room as a best practice. Masks are also still advised in the cockpit and indoor areas, and regular testing is standard.
Some international operators are now employing a shadow crew of pilots and flight attendants for every flight, testing them alongside the assigned crew so that there is an immediate replacement for any crew member that returns a positive COVID test result before departure. Demand is also increasing for relief flight crews in destination countries.
“Some trips demand a lot more effort and due diligence than others, and it’s up to us as the aviation department to make sure that our passengers are aware that it can take a lot more work to ensure we have a seamless entry into a destination than it did pre-pandemic.”
Chad Patnode Flight Operations Manager, Pfizer
The pandemic has also required international operators to strengthen their relationships with their passengers.
“The working relationship with executives has become increasingly important,” says Pfizer’s Patnode. “Not only do we have to be absolutely certain that every passenger has the required documentation; we also have to educate them on testing routines, and, most importantly, set realistic expectations on each journey. Some trips demand a lot more effort and due diligence than others, and it’s up to us as the aviation department to make sure that our passengers are aware that it can take a lot more work to ensure we have a seamless entry into a destination than it did pre-pandemic,” he adds.
Operators resuming international flights should also be prepared for a different service environment, notes Jet Aviation’s Paddock.
“Infection rates and lockdowns have impacted staffing levels at many vendors, and while this might not have an impact in the immediate future, once demand returns and the number of international flights increases, operators will need to understand that it will take time for the industry to get back to pre-pandemic levels,” he notes.
“The pandemic has also impacted the supply chain,” added Paddock, “and this has affected access to [aircraft] parts and put upward pressure on prices, particularly for fuel and other consumables. This situation will not be permanent, but it is something that every operator must now consider when flying internationally.”
Not Like the Old Days
The additional procedures, preparation and paperwork required for an international flight add complexity to every operation.
“Don’t expect things to be like they were before the pandemic,” says ASA Group’s Ambrose. “You must continually research, check and recheck the requirements prior to and during every trip and be flexible enough to accommodate changes, sometimes with little or no advance notice. It takes a lot more effort not to complete a successful flight.”
This deluge of new procedures can distract from the pre-pandemic requirements, which must still be adhered to, notes Líder Aviação’s de Oliveira.
“Ensure every passenger and every crew member sends their documentation well in advance of the flight. In addition to all the health-related documents you now need, you still need to confirm that visas, permits, overflight authorizations, submission deadlines and other documentation are all correct and up to date. We cannot forget all this paperwork that is part of an international operation,” she says.