- The CAAB disagrees with the decision of mandating Covid-19 negative test certificates for air travel as it goes against ICAO and WHO guidelines
- Airlines have not yet got a specific date for implementing the decision
- Biman and Qatar Airways have issued lists of coronavirus testing centres for their passengers
- No country except Bangladesh is now demanding Covid-19 negative certificates for air travel
- The CAAB will seek a central guideline over Covid-19 certificate issue from the ICAO today
The government's move to make a Covid-19 negative certificate mandatory for travelling abroad has put the aviation industry in a tight spot because there is no clear instruction from the authorities concerned as yet.
On July 12, the foreign ministry mandated that all Bangladeshis must have certificates to show that they tested negative prior to flying.
However, a lack of coordination among the relevant authorities in implementing the decision has added to the aviation industry's woes.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB) disagrees with the decision as it thinks the decision contradicts the guidelines issued by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) on reopening airspace.
Therefore, the CAAB has not yet issued any clear instruction about the implementation of the government's decision, putting the airline operators and passengers in confusion.
The health ministry was supposed to publish a list of approved testing centres for air travellers, but it is yet to do so at the time of filing this report on July 15.
When the health sector is finding it tough to cope with the rising need for Covid-19 tests, compulsory testing of air travellers has become an added burden on the health ministry which is now in complete disarray with scandals over fake Covid-19 test reports.
Although airline operators have not got a specific date for implementing the decision from the CAAB and the health ministry, some airlines have already started asking for Covid-19 negative certificates from passengers before allowing them to fly. The UAE has recently made Covid-19 negative certificates compulsory only for the passengers needing a visit visa.
Biman Bangladesh Airlines and Qatar Airways have issued lists of coronavirus testing centres for their passengers. Biman is asking its passengers to have the papers ready as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has made it a requirement.
Currently, no other country requires Covid-19 negative certificates for air travel.
The CAAB will hold a virtual meeting with the ICAO on Thursday where the authority will raise the issue of mandating Covid-19 test for air travel, seeking a central guideline for the worldwide aviation industry in this regard.
The new requirement will increase harassment of passengers, resulting in their losing interest in air travel, said industry insiders.
Mokabbir Hossain, managing director of Biman, said this decision will result in more passenger losses for the airlines.
If a passenger tests positive 72 hours before boarding a flight, the airline operators will not have his or her replacement and they have to operate the particular flight, keeping that seat empty. In this way, both passengers and the airlines will be the loser, he added.
They have already lost 50 percent of passengers for complying with inflight social distancing.
Why was the decision taken?
The foreign ministry has mandated Covid-19 negative certificates for Bangladesh nationals to travel abroad after Italy sent back around 150 Bangladeshis who took a Qatar Airways flight on July 8.
Italy had imposed a restriction on passengers from 14 countries, including Bangladesh, on July 7 for rising infection rates in those countries. However, Qatar Airways operated the flight without knowledge of the restriction.
As a result, Italy did not allow the passengers to enter the country, which was widely reported in local and international media, tainting Bangladesh's image globally.
However, the return of the flight was not because of any Covid-19 test related issue; rather it was Italy's health ministry's internal decision about suspending flights for a week from countries with rising infection rates.
After the incident, the foreign ministry on July 12, announced that from now on, every Bangladeshi national travelling abroad must have a coronavirus negative certificate.
However, the decision has not come into effect yet.
What does CAAB say?
Talking to The Business Standard, Air Vice Marshal M Mafidur Rahman, chairman of CAAB, said the decision was taken by the foreign ministry not by the civil aviation authority.
He said the decision contradicts the guidelines of the ICAO and the WHO as their guidelines do not mandate Covid-19 negative certificates for air travel.
The ICAO has given guidelines on how to contain coronavirus transmission during air travel by ensuring protective measures. All countries have taken health safety measures conforming to its instructions.
A Covid-19 negative certificate has no acceptability to international organisations because there is no guarantee that one who is negative today will not be positive the next day.
"We have not issued any circular regarding the decision as we have neither got any list nor instruction from the health ministry yet," the CAAB chairman said.
"We will raise the issue at a virtual meeting with the ICAO scheduled to be held on Thursday. We will request them to give a central guideline over the Covid-19 certificate issue," he added.
Talking about the Italy issue, he said the flight returned because the country imposed a restriction on flights a day before. But the Italian embassy in Bangladesh did not circulate the order correctly.
As a result, Qatar Airways operated the flight being unaware of Italy's suspension of flights from Bangladesh. The airline came to know of the order when the flight had already taken off from Doha. There was no issue of Covid-19 certificate because it was not a requirement of the country.
"Rather, the Italian embassy requested us to operate flights to Rome to take back their citizens. Following their request, the foreign ministry arranged a special flight through Biman Bangladesh Airlines before Italy imposed a travel restriction," he said.
But the Italian government found that some Bangladeshis did not maintain quarantine measures which increased contamination risk. From this consideration, Italy imposed travel restrictions on 14 countries including Bangladesh.
However, the incident of Italy's sending back the Bangladeshi passengers was reported in different media creating the impression that the Bangladeshis were refused entry to the country due to fake Covid-19 certificates, which was not correct.
Based on this event, the foreign ministry took the strict decision of making Covid-19 negative certificates mandatory, which will ultimately increase passengers' hardship, he added.
How passengers suffer from the decision
Ruma Chowdhury, from Cumilla, purchased a ticket of Turkish Airlines for travelling to the USA. Her flight is scheduled for July 17 midnight.
However, till July 15, she had no idea if her flight was on time as Turkish Airlines has already rescheduled its previous flights.
The airline will confirm her flight on July 16. So, after getting the flight confirmation, she will have one day in hand to come to Dhaka to get on the flight.
Ruma now worries how she will take the Covid-19 test report within this short time.
Moreover, the airline did not give her any instruction about where to have the test done. After the announcement from the foreign ministry, Ruma took her Covid-19 test report from Cumilla Medical College but that report was not made out to any one individual; rather, it named a group of people.
More than 72 hours have also passed since the report was issued.
The airline instructed her to have a medical certificate with a negative Covid-19 test result issued at most 72 hours before departure. And the report must contain only an individual's name.
"I am at a loss now over what I should do," said Ruma, while talking to The Business Standard.
"I have not been given any clear instruction about the test certificate yet," she said.
She said, "It is difficult for me to manage the certificate within 48 to 72 hours. It is a hardship for me. I contacted United Hospital to get tested before the flight, but they charge Tk6,500, which is very high."
"Moreover, to take the test report, I need to stay at Dhaka for a day, but at this time, it is not easy to stay with any family. So, I will have to stay in a hotel which is also not convenient for me."
"With all these problems, I am now stressed over whether I will be able to fly finally," she said.
The decision will have a severe negative impact on the migration sector, said Shameem Ahmed Chowdhury Noman, general secretary of Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies.
If a passenger is detected with Covid-19 just a few hours before boarding a flight after completing a long process, who will compensate for this loss?, he questioned.
Moreover, the process, including medical check-up, for sending a labour abroad takes 45 to 50 days. If a coronavirus test is done on him or her during this process, there is a possibility of their getting infected again by this time, he said.
So, mandating Covid-19 negative certificates during air travel should be reconsidered, he added.