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Airports could benefit from faster COVID-19 test kits

COVID-19 tests Oxford
Photo: Oxford University

Faster coronavirus tests that could be used in airports and can identify COVID-19 in about 30 minutes are on the way.

Scientists in the UK and China are working on one solution while another is under development in Thailand.

The solution being developed by Oxford University’s Engineering Science Department and the Oxford Suzhou Centre for Advanced Research (OSCAR) in China is sensitive enough to be detect the virus in the early stage of infection.

READ: Australians told not to travel overseas as Europe shuts door.

The 30-minute result time would be an improvement on existing test waits of up to two to six hours.

It has been validated with real clinical samples at Shenzhen Luohou People’s Hospital in China.

The hospital applied the rapid detection kits on 16 clinical samples, including 8 positives and 8 negatives.

The test results using the rapid detection kits were all successful.

“The beauty of this new test lies in the design of the viral detection that can specifically recognize SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) RNA and RNA fragments,” said research lead Prof Wei Huang.

“The test has built-in checks to prevent false positives or negatives and the results have been highly accurate.”

Researchers of Thailand’s Vidyasirimedhi Institute of Science and Technology (VISTEC) have also developed a kit that can deliver a result in 30 to 45 minutes and plan to launch clinical trials next month.

Supporters of the project include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

Estimates are that the Thai test kits will cost about 475 baht ($US14.56).

Medical systems are grappling with a shortage of test kits needed to identify the spread of the disease, which has now topped 214,000 cases worldwide with 8,732 deaths as of late Wednesday US time.

Italy remains a hotspot with 35,713 cases and 2978 deaths at the time of writing, followed by Iran, Spain and Germany.

Europe has closed its borders for 30 days and governments around the world are introducing increasingly drastic measures such as travel restrictions in an attempt to control the spread of the disease.

The growing economic impact is now seen as worse than the global financial crisis with airlines particularly badly affected, prompting the mass grounding of aircraft and dramatic international capacity cuts.



Australian bush to take another hit with Rex capacity cuts

A REX SAAB 340. Photo: Rex

Drought, bushfires and now isolation: regional communities in Australia are about to take another hit as regional carrier Rex cuts flights by about 40 percent and suspends some routes.

The Rex cuts come after extensive domestic capacity reductions at both Qantas and Virgin Australia and as Australia’s biggest independent regional carrier on Wednesday withdrew its profit guidance due to the level of uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.

READ: Virgin Australia suspends international flying, halves domestic capacity.

But the airline commended the Australian government and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack on a $A715m relief package aimed at supporting the airline industry.

The package involves the refunding and ongoing waiving of a range of Government charges — including aviation fuel excise, air navigation charges, and security fees  — on domestic airline operations.

The assistance package was also welcomed by other carriers but criticized as not going far enough by at least one union.

Lobby group Airlines for Australia & New Zealand (A4ANZ) chairman Professor Graeme Samuel hailed  the package as a welcome and important measure from the government.

Rex agreed.

“This is a great start, and we thank the Deputy Prime Minister for hearing Rex’s voice and
understanding that these measures are crucial to give Rex and all regional carriers a fighting
chance to stay afloat long enough,”  Rex chairman Lim Kim Hai said.

“Rex is disappointed that the package does not include a sovereign guarantee of new loans taken up by regional carriers to tide them through the period of extreme negative cash flow until normalcy returns and we are hopeful that this will be adopted in a second stage of assistance.”

The airline said it was not relying on government assistance and it had instituted a broad range of measures to cut costs and conserve cash.

This included reducing the network to match the expected sharp downturn.

“The exact network changes will be announced in the coming days but Rex expects about 40 percent of capacity will be taken out with some routes being cut altogether,” the airline said in a statement.

“Rex has also spoken to all the unions, and we are grateful and comforted that all unions and staff are firmly supportive of the draconian measures that need to be implemented in these dire circumstances.”



Australians told not to travel overseas as Europe shuts door

Image: US Food and Drug Administration.

Australia has introduced unprecedented “do not travel” advice for all overseas destinations and has urged nationals overseas to return home.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed the blunt advice to Australians Wednesday as he outlined other measures aimed at restricting the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

“Do not go overseas – that is very clear instruction,” Morrison said.

“For those of you thinking about going overseas for the school holidays, don’t. Don’t go overseas.”

READ: Virgin Australia suspends international flying, halves domestic capacity

The warning comes as more countries consider closing their borders or widening travel restrictions.

Countries such as Canada are now in near-total lockdown and the European Union is banning most travelers for at least 30 days as it struggles to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The European ban covers 26 countries and more than 400 million people with exceptions for European Citizens and residents coming home.

It does not apply to the UK, which has also advised citizens against non-essential overseas travel for 30 days.

Europe has become the epicenter of the disease as the number of cases worldwide is approaching 200,000 with almost 8,000 deaths.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the ban could be extended if necessary.

“Here in Europe we are heavily affected by the virus and we know that everything that reduces social interaction also reduces the spread of the virus,” she said.

“Therefore the less travel the more we can contain the virus.”

In Australia, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade increased its travel advisory to its highest level, level 4, telling Australians: “Do not travel overseas at this time”.

Level 4 advice, which has previously been applied to specific regions or countries, means travelers’ health and safety are at extreme risk.

People who choose to travel are advised to get professional advice and warned their travel insurance might be void as most standard policies do not cover “do not travel” destinations.

The Australian government may also not be able to help them.

“If you are already overseas and wish to return to Australia, we recommend you do so as soon as possible by commercial means,” DFAT says on its page.

“Regardless of your destination, age or health, our advice is do not travel at this time.

“As more countries close their borders or introduce travel restrictions, overseas travel is becoming more complex and difficult. You may not be able to return to Australia when you had planned to.“

DFAT urged Australians to consider whether you have access to health care and support systems if they get sick while overseas.

It warned commercial air travel may be less available as more airlines ground flights.

Qantas on Tuesday said it was cutting international capacity by 90 percent and Virgin Australia today said it was suspending all international flying by the end of the month.

Singapore Airlines has since announced it is reducing capacity by 50 percent inn April and United Airlines has said it is reducing its international flying by 85 percent.

Both decisions will affect flights into Australia, with Singapore reducing flights to major cities and suspending services to others.

“If you’re overseas and can’t or don’t want to return to Australia, follow the advice of local authorities,’’ it said.

“Take care to minimise your risk of exposure to coronavirus including by self-isolating.

“If you choose to stay, note our ability to provide consular assistance in some places may be limited due to restrictions on movement and other services.”

All travelers returning to Australia are required to self-isolate for 14 days.


Singapore Airlines cuts capacity by 50 percent, United by 60 percent

singapore airlines

Singapore Airlines has suspended many of its flights to Europe as it moves to halve capacity to the end of April in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The changes came as Star Alliance partner United Airlines revealed it was going to reduce capacity 60 percent, including a 42 percent cut across the US and Canada and an 85 percent reduction in international flights.

This would see the US carrier operate just 45 daily flights across the Atlantic, Pacific and Latin America in April.

Destinations include Sydney, Melbourne, Tel Aviv, London-Heathrow, Mumbai, New Dehli, Osaka, Frankfurt, Singapore, Tokyo,  Mexico City and Sao Paulo.

However, neither of the capacity cuts appeared to take into account the decision by the European Union to ban most foreigners for 30 days.

In Australia, the Singapore Airlines cuts at this stage will likely see flights to Melbourne, Sydney and Perth reduced to daily and services to Brisbane reduced to four times weekly.  Flights to Cairns, Canberra, Adelaide and Darwin will not operate in April.

The SIA changes come after travel restrictions are being ramped up worldwide. Singapore itself this week expanded travel restrictions to issue 14-day stay home notices to travelers who had visited ASEAN countries, the UK, Japan and Switzerland.

The airline warned that the growing scale of the border controls globally and its deepening impact on air travel meant it was likely to make further cuts to its capacity.

Airlines throughout the world have been drastically slashing capacity in response to the crisis and a number of governments, including Australia, have urged their residents to return home as international connectivity declines.

Singapore partners Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia have also announced big cuts and Virgin has suspended its international operations.

READ: Virgin Australia suspends international flying, halves domestic capacity.

“We have lost a large amount of our traffic in a very short time, and it will not be viable for us to maintain our current network,’’ SIA chief executive Goh Choon Phong said.

“Make no mistake – we expect the pace of this deterioration to accelerate. The SIA Group must be prepared for a prolonged period of difficulty.”

Like many airlines, SIA is taking steps to build up liquidity.

It is also consulting with unions again as it urgently takes steps to further cut costs and said it would announce additional measures “when they had been firmed up”.

The airline is offering fare waivers and is automatically converting tickets for flights that are canceled into an open ticket for travel up to March 31, 2021.

It said affected customers did not need to contact SIA directly but could provide their details in a form found at when their new travel plans had been firmed up.

Customer service agents would then contact them.

In other airline news, American Airlines said it had had changed food procedures at some of its lounges and closed a number of them due to falling demand.

Admirals Club lounges in Paris , Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo  and Buenos Aires  and the Flagship Lounge in London have been temporarily closed. The London Heathrow Admirals Club will remain open with reduced hours.

Virgin Australia suspends international flying, halves domestic capacity

Virgin Australia
A Virgin Australia 777 landing in Los Angeles. Photo; Tim Bowen/Virgin

Virgin Australia will suspend all international flying from March 30 to June 14 and reduce domestic capacity by 50 percent as it grounds 53 aircraft.

The cuts are the latest response to the COVID-19 crisis that saw Qantas this week announce it was slashing international flying by 90 percent and cutting domestic capacity by 60 percent.

READ: Massive Qantas cuts see international capacity slashed by 90 percent.

The airline says it will work with the Australian government to prioritize bringing Australians homes and returning visitors to their point of origin.

It has also warned some staff face redundancies as a result of the cuts.

Announcing the drastic cuts, Virgin chief executive Paul Scurrah said the global aviation industry had entered unprecedented times.

“We have responded by making tough decisions which include reducing our domestic capacity and phasing in the temporary suspension of international flying for a period of two and a half months,” he said.

“We are committed to supporting our guests during this period and have set a dedicated customer service hub to manage the surge of customer queries and travel changes.

“We are also acutely aware of the important role airlines play in supporting connectivity, tourism and the nation’s economy and are maintaining most of our domestic routes  and instead reducing frequency in our schedule.”

Melbourne-Los Angeles will be the first international route to be suspended on March 20.

The decision also means the deferral of the airline’s new Brisbane-Tokyo Haneda and Melbourne-Denpasar services, both of which were due to launch March 29.

The airline will ground five Boeing 777s, an Airbus A330 and 14 Boeing 737s from its international fleet.

Twenty Boeing 737s, two ATRs and five Airbus A330s will also be grounded in the domestic fleet.

The airline said it was still working through route and schedule changes across Virgin and Tigerair Australia.

The airline did not quantify the impact on its workforce but said it was working with staff and unions on a range of measures including the use of accrued annual leave, leave without pay, and in some circumstances, redundancies.

“The changes announced today will affect our people and we are having constructive discussions with team members and relevant unions,” Scurrah said.

“Wherever possible, we will aim to avoid redundancies by fast-tracking measures such as the use of accrued leave, leave without pay and redeployment.”

Virgin said passengers with new, existing domestic and international bookings through June 30 have the option to change their flight to a later date and/or a different destination without incurring a change fee.

It said those who no longer wish to travel can cancel their flight and retain the value of the booking as a travel credit.

Those affected by the international suspension would be contacted via email within the next 14 days.

The airline urged passengers not due to travel in the next 24 hours or not in need of immediate assistance to refrain from contacting the airline.

Rating agency S&P earlier this week downgraded Virgin Australia to B- and placed it on negative credit watch due to the deteriorating domestic market.







Moody’s predicts COVID-19 will ‘significantly curtail’ travel until June

Moody's travel curtailed
Photo: Frankfurt Airport

Rating agency Moody’s Investors Services expects the coronavirus to significantly curtail global travel demand until at least June.

Moody’s announced overnight that it was placing Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, International Airlines Group and British Airways on review while downgrading Lufthansa and easyJet.

“The rapid and widening spread of the coronavirus outbreak, deteriorating global economic outlook, falling oil prices, and asset price declines are creating a severe and extensive credit shock across many sectors, regions and markets,’’ the rating agency said.

“The combined credit effects of these developments are unprecedented.

“The passenger airline sector has been one of the sectors most significantly affected by the shock given its exposure to travel restrictions and sensitivity to consumer demand and sentiment.”

READ: Australia urges nationals to come home while they still can

US airlines in recent years have been among the world’s most robust and Moody’s said its review of Delta reflected the breadth and severity of the shock, the broad deterioration in credit quality and the high-level lingering uncertainty.

“The review for downgrade reflects Moody’s concerns that the coronavirus will significantly curtail US domestic and global demand for air travel through at least June.

“For now, Moody’s assumes a measured pace of recovery in demand commencing in the third quarter.

“Moody’s anticipates that the accelerating incidence of the coronavirus across the US will
lead to further capacity reductions across the industry and, potentially, a temporary restriction on passenger air services, both domestically and to and from additional foreign countries.”

Moody’s said its current assumption was that domestic industry capacity is cut by 50 percent in the second quarter and 25 percent in the third quarter relative to the same quarters in 2019.

It assumed capacity on international routes would shrink by 90 percent or more in the second quarter and a slower recovery than for domestic traffic.

This assumed Delta’s capacity for the year would be down 35 percent.

“However, there are high risks of more challenging downside scenarios, and the severity and duration of the pandemic and travel restrictions are highly uncertain,’’ it said.

There were similar recovery assumptions for IAG, which owns British Airways and other airlines such as Iberia and Aer Lingus.

“The base case assumes there is a gradual recovery in passenger volumes starting in the third quarter,” Moody’s said.

“However, there are high risks of more challenging downside scenarios and the severity and duration of the pandemic and travel restrictions is uncertain.

“Moody’s analysis assumes around a 50 percent reduction in IAG’s passenger traffic in the second quarter and an 18 percent fall for the full year, whilst also modeling significantly deeper downside cases including a full fleet grounding during the course of Q2.”

Moody’s said easyJet, which was downgraded from BAA1 to BAA2, had been particularly exposed to the coronavirus in Europe due to its Italian operations. It would also not benefit materially from lower oil prices because of its fuel hedging.

It’s analysis assumed passenger traffic would halve in the second quarter and be down 21 percent for the full year.

“Moody’s expects travel restrictions to worsen globally over the coming weeks leading to
full or partial groundings across the company’s network,’’ it said.

Lufthansa was downgraded to Ba1 on an estimated 50-60 percent reduction in passenger traffic in the second quarter and a 20 percent fall for the full year.

Acknowledging Lufthansa’s efforts to shore up liquidity and manage the crisis, Moody’s said the airline had no headroom under its current rating category.

‘Lufthansa had slightly less than 10 percent cash/revenue as per 30th September, a relatively low level compared to certain other European rated airlines,’’ it said.

“We believe that Lufthansa’s monthly cash burn rate is currently elevated and that additional liquidity measures will be required if the slump in demand extends well into Q2 and possibly
into Q3.

“Lufthansa should be able to use its access to various funding markets and its sizeable unencumbered fleet to protect liquidity even in a prolonged period of depressed demand.”

On March 13, Lufthansa had €4.3 billion of cash on the balance sheet and approximately €800 million availability under undrawn credit facilities without financial covenants.

Aussie and Kiwi governments to stand behind airlines with over a billion dollars


The Australian and New Zealand governments have announced significant support packages for their respective airlines and support industries.

The Australian Government package involves the refunding and ongoing waiving of a range of Government charges on the industry including aviation fuel excise, Airservices charges on domestic airline operations and domestic and regional aviation security charges.

The total cost of the measures is estimated to be A$715 million, with an upfront estimated benefit of A$159 million to its airlines for reimbursement of applicable charges paid by domestic airlines since 1 February 2020.

The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Michael McCormack said: “our response today demonstrates our commitment to supporting the aviation sector as we put Australia in the best position possible to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.”

READ: Hero pilot Tom Hanks recovers from COVID-19

“Our airlines run on tight budgets at the best of times and these past few weeks have been particularly tough. I’ve been speaking with Australian airline executives every day and will continue to work with them to make sure they receive the support they need.

SEE Channel 7’s Coverage of the stimulus package 

“Providing this assistance not only helps our airlines but also the entire aviation industry, regional Australians in particular and other industries such as tourism and trade, which depend on aviation.

The move is very important to the Australian community that they can book flights with confidence and thus support the tourism industry.

The Qantas Group welcomed the Federal Government’s support package for Australian aviation, helping it to deal with the fallout from coronavirus.

Qantas Group CEO, Alan Joyce, said: “This is very welcome support for the industry. We know there are a lot of calls for government assistance across the economy because of coronavirus but aviation has probably been the first and hardest hit. For all players to receive this support early on is a great help.

“The Deputy Prime Minister has stayed close to the airlines as this crisis has unfolded and that’s helped with the design of the package. The fact it’s retrospective gives us an immediate cash benefit as we deal with falling revenue, and its sized according to each airline.

“There are some tough weeks and possibly months ahead, but our focus is on getting through that so we’re ready to help with the recovery on the other side.”

Qantas boss Alan Joyce with CFO Vanessa Hudson. Photo: Steve Creedy

Across the Tasman, the New Zealand aviation industry will benefit from a $NZ600 million package which is part of one of the largest per-capita stimulus announced of NZ$12 billion (US$7.30 billion).

Air New Zealand fares

The package is larger than that implemented during the global financial crisis and like the Australian commitment flags massive support for the airline sector.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that “the government is pulling out all stops to protect the health of New Zealanders and the health of our economy.”

The country’s Finance Minister Grant Robertson added that the initial NZ$600 million support package for aviation would be followed by additional and separate measures for Air New Zealand.

He said that this package was just the start.


Hero pilot Tom Hanks recovers from COVID-19


Tom Hanks who starred in such space and aviation classics as Apollo 13, Sully and Castaway, has, with his wife Rita Wilson been discharged from hospital in Australia.

According to Australia’s ABC both have been discharged from the Gold Coast University hospital 78.

In an Instagram post, Hanks’s son Chet said both his parents had been released from the hospital and were feeling a lot better the ABC said.

“They are still self-quarantined obviously, but they are feeling a lot better so that’s a relief,” Chet Hanks said in the video post.

Air Tahiti Nui starts world longest domestic route to beat virus

“I just want to say anyone else out there that has loved ones, or if you yourself are inflicted with the virus, my prayers go out to you, because a lot of people are suffering other than my parents right now.

“I just wish everyone a swift and speedy recovery.”

The ABC said that “Chet also took aim at people who were stockpiling food and other items, calling for calm.”

“I think the most important thing is that we stay calm because panicking really isn’t necessary,” he said.

Mr Hanks is in Queensland working on an Elvis biopic with director Baz Luhrmann.

Mr Hanks revealed the diagnosis last week and thanked “everyone here Down Under” who had taken care of them.

Mr Hanks added that people should follow the advice of experts.

“There are things we can all do to get through this by following the advice of experts and taking care of ourselves and each other, no?” he said.

Major Aussie airports expect $A500m hit from COVID-19


Australia’s major airports have moved to head off airline demands for fee relief with a warning they face a $A500m aeronautical revenue hit due to COVID-19.

The record slump in demand and travel restrictions imposed by governments is prompting airlines to dramatically slash capacity as they look for ways to preserve cash.

Qantas has announced a 90 percent cut in international capacity and a 60 percent cut in domestic flying — although it has yet to spell out the details — and Virgin Australia is expected to add to the pain with further cuts in the next few days.

READ: Massive Qantas cuts see international capacity slashed by 90 percent.

With the hunt on to cut costs, airlines internationally have turned their attention to government charges and airport fees as sources of potential savings.

But the Australian Airports Association says airports are already suffering a $500m revenue hit due to lower passenger numbers at a time their costs are changing little “because of the need to keep runways open and lights on in terminals”.

“We still need to keep our airports safe and secure as we welcome the passengers that continue to fly,’’ said AAA acting chief executive Simon Bourke.

“We must also be ready for the post-virus rebound and continue to plan for a strong recovery.

“Airports are taking a hit to maintain their investment and infrastructure pipelines which are so critical in terms of keeping the airport open and keeping people in jobs.”

Airports have already reported significant falls in February traffic and these are expected to widen under new restrictions requiring people entering Australia to self-isolate for 14 days.

in addition to the unprecedented cuts by local carriers, at least two US carriers have canceled flights to Australia and most major overseas players are rethinking inbound capacity.

The AAA argues aeronautical charges are dependent on passenger numbers so canceled flights and fewer passengers already mean lower payments.

“Both airports and airlines are being seriously financially impacted by COVID-19 and we must work together to make sure we are ready when the recovery comes,’’ Bourke said.

“Further cuts when airline payments are already falling with every canceled flight and empty airline seats would severely limit airports’ ability to support the recovery of our airline, retail and business partners.

“In order for airline businesses to recover when these challenges pass, airports must keep building the runways and terminal infrastructure we know they will need when the industry rebounds.

“The recovery will be strong, just as we’ve seen in the past, and we want to give our partners confidence that we are ready to support them as they rebuild.”

Disclosure: Steve Creedy contributes articles to the AAA’s The Airport Professional






Canadian border shuts to foreigners as Air Canada halves capacity.

canada and borders

Canada has shut its borders to most foreigners and is urging Canadians to return home by commercial means “while they remain available”.

The sweeping restrictions also require all travelers to Canada to self-isolate for 14-days upon entry, although workers essential to the movement of goods and people are exempted.

The bans are in effect until further notice and bars foreign nationals from all countries except the US from entering Canada.

READ: Massive Qantas cuts see international capacity slashed by 90 percent.

They do not apply in some exceptional circumstances that include aircrews and transiting passengers.

International flights will also be redirected to four airports: Toronto Pearson International Airport, Vancouver International Airport, Montréal-Trudeau International Airport, and Calgary International Airport.

The redirection measure does not apply to flights from destinations such as the US, Mexico, the Caribbean. These flights can continue to fly their regular routes and land at current Canadian destinations.

Canada is also strengthening screening and cleaning measures at airports and  is requiring airlines to prevent travelers who present COVID-19 symptoms, regardless of their citizenship, from boarding.

However, the government is supporting Canadians affected by COVID-19 abroad through an emergency loan program to those in immediate need of financial assistance to help them return home or cover their needs while in quarantine or receiving treatment.

“My top priority is the health and safety of all Canadians,’’ Trudeau said.

“Our government is doing what it must to protect all Canadians, and to support workers and businesses.

“We will get through this together by following the directions from our public health and medical experts, and doing what we can to protect ourselves, our families, and our communities.”

The decision to lock down Canadian borders came as Air Canada said it was cutting capacity by 50 percent in the second quarter versus a year ago and withdrawing its earnings guidance for 2020 and 2021.

The cuts included a 75 percent reduction in capacity in Pacific markets.

The airline is also suspending its share buy-back program and introducing a company-wide cost reduction and capital deferral program targeting at least $C500 million.

It said its current liquidity level of about $C7.3 billion meant it was well placed to handle the crisis.

“COVID-19 presents the global airline industry with unprecedented challenges, compounded by uncertainty as to the extent of its effects,’’ said chief executive Calin Rovinescu.

“However, we are confident that after a decade of transformation and record results, Air Canada today has the agility, the team and the route network to successfully navigate through this crisis.

“Most importantly for business continuity, it also has the necessary financial resources, including a solid balance sheet, record liquidity levels, higher debt ratings based on a low leverage ratio, and a significant pension plan surplus.”



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