In aviation these days you can go from hero to zero in just one tweet. Aer Lingus crew were feted by the nation on The Late Late Show for quickly establishing a route to China to collect badly-needed personal protective equipment.
Then, last week, one photo tweeted by a passenger on a packed Aer Lingus flight landed the airline in a storm of criticism over social distancing. The controversy underscored the massive problem Aer Lingus - and all of its competitors - face in getting back to something that resembles normal.
"Many of us would love to have a 95pc load factor," one aviation executive commented wryly when asked about the criticism Aer Lingus had faced. "At least it showed there is still an appetite to fly."
Debate has raged about what social distancing might look like on an airplane. In reality, with social distancing strictly enforced, an Aer Lingus Airbus A320 - or a Ryanair Boeing 737 - could carry no more than 30 passengers and, potentially, even fewer than that. IAG boss Willie Walsh has made his feelings clear on the topic. "Social distancing - I don't believe it's possible to do that on an aircraft," he said.
Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary branded as "idiotic" the much-touted idea of leaving the middle seat empty: "We can't make money on 66pc load factors," he told the 'Financial Times'.
Senior aviation executives told the Sunday Independent that the only economically feasible solution is for airport authorities to take on the burden of ensuring passengers are not carrying Covid-19 onto planes. This, they said, could include pre-flight mandatory temperature checks or even blood tests.
Such tests and procedures would need to be somehow facilitated by airport authorities in the passenger journey, although the actual testing would likely need to be carried out by a national health authority or agency, not dissimilar to passport control. Airport authorities would no doubt argue that any such new procedures will need to be paid for by someone and this could add a whole new front to the never-ending debate between them and the airlines over airport charges.
CityJet chief executive Pat Byrne told the Sunday Independent that "contrary to popular belief, one of the safer environments actually is an aircraft cabin" because the air on a modern passenger jet is refreshed up to 30 times an hour.
Byrne has found himself at the sharp end of aviation's Covid nightmare with CityJet now in court-appointed examinership. He is precluded from discussing CityJet's situation, but Byrne does not underestimate the challenges ahead for the entire industry: "The aircraft cabin is relatively safe. The danger will be in security queues and the airport terminal itself. A lot of logistics need to be worked out."
But if Walsh, O'Leary and Byrne are correct and social distancing is not possible on aircraft, neither is it going to be easy at a busy airport like Dublin. The operational challenges are enormous.
For example, a passenger trying to negotiate Dublin's Terminal 1 might face a sea of greatly elongated queues taking up huge amounts of extra floor space should the type of social distancing now standard in supermarkets be put in place.
Based on applying social distancing to the Aviation Regulator's 2017 Helios Report on airport capacity, a passenger flying on a Boeing 737 might firstly have to join one of three 112-metre-long queues to reach a check-in desk. Online check-in might avoid such a scenario but the passenger would face a 475-metre-long queue for security, based on T1's ability to handle 240 passengers per hour through each of 15 security lanes.
In the boarding area the logistical nightmare of social distancing at an international airport would become even more challenging. The three piers in Dublin's T1 can handle 6,150 per hour. At full capacity, with passengers two metres apart, that could mean the total length of queues combined over an hour in that area could be 7.6 miles.
Byrne believes there are ways to lessen the logistical nightmare at airports such as Dublin. "Maybe it's time to actually rethink the whole security thing," he said. Many in the business already question how effective - and how cumbersome - security infrastructure that has built up over 20 years has become, he says.
"Should there be more profiling of passengers and random testing instead? One thing at this point that certainly needs to be reviewed is the amount of stuff people try to bring into the cabin. It slows everything up and causes the queues. So if it is a case of having to do blood tests or take temperature or the segregation of people into manageable units all of that is going to take time and something has to give. But, once and for all, the unacceptable delays caused by the current security regime need to be addressed. If that means people can't bring bags in the cabin well maybe that's a price people will accept," he said.
Airlines are free to set their own baggage rules, but there would be a hidden price too. The healthy profits from airport shopping are used by many airport authorities, not least DAA, to subsidise passenger charges, meaning a new strict no-cabin-baggage policy could greatly disrupt this revenue line and ultimately drive up air fares.
But there is potential for even more drastic and invasive measures. In the absence of a vaccine, airports may have to carry out blood tests on each passenger to negate the need for either social distancing on aircraft or quarantines for arriving passengers, according to Enda Corneille, who heads the Irish operation of Emirates. He also believes social distancing is economically unsustainable on airplanes.
The return of Emirates' cargo service to Dublin in recent weeks will have been most welcome for airport bosses but the return of its double daily passenger services for now seems a long way off.
"There is going to be a new normal," said Corneille. "I remember when the rule on liquids came out in the aftermath of 9/11. It's still there 20 years later. There will be new rules coming out of this. It's simply not feasible for Emirates to operate an A380, which holds almost 600 passengers, for 100 people observing social distancing. It just won't work. The same goes for a Ryanair 737. It needs an 85pc seat factor. The economics don't work if seat factor is capped at 20pc."
Dubai Airport has trialled 10-minute blood tests for Covid-19 on passengers on certain flights.
"If that technology was extended to Heathrow, Paris, Frankfurt, Dublin, New York, then you begin to get a sense that all 300 people on a plane are all clear," he said.
"The airline, for its part, will have to fulfil all sorts of potentially new obligations on cleaning the aircraft, on food - and crew may wear masks, for example," said Corneille. "But by the time a customer gets on the aircraft they will have been cleared for the virus, meaning airlines can operate to full capacity. But the onus is on the airport, on the ground experience, to fulfil those obligations. And for me, that's the only real way it will come back because it simply can't come back if the restrictions extend onto the aircraft itself," he said, adding that blood tests are being discussed at the highest levels of the industry.
"In the end, airports may not get a choice in the matter. ICAO [the International Civil Aviation Organisation] sets the rules and can say 'You're not going to fly unless this, this and this happens'. Airports may be told 'This is how it's going to be'. It's a bit like when a new security system has to go in. No one gets to discuss it. It just goes in. So it may not even be in DAA's hands, for example."
Asked to comment on potential post-pandemic changes at airports, a Dublin Airport spokesman said the safety and security of passengers and staff was always the airport's key priority and has been throughout the pandemic.
"The Irish Government sets the State's travel and health policies in relation to Covid-19 and makes decisions in relation to the operation of Ireland's airports and ports. Dublin Airport has complied fully with these policies at all times and continues to do so," he said.
"Ireland's health and travel policies during this crisis continue to be set by the State, and the Government is likely to make decisions about the more general resumption of passenger flights. Dublin Airport will also work closely with European regulators and agencies, our airline customers and other European airports, through ACI Europe, in relation to a more general resumption of services and how that may operate."
So what does this mean for Dublin airport, not to mention for the economy? Until the pandemic struck, more than 19,000 people were employed at the airport by DAA, airlines and the many cafés, shops and other facilities that helped it handle 32.9m passengers in 2019. It is estimated the airport accounts - directly or indirectly - for 117,000 jobs and, should it not return to its operational capacity in the coming months, the wider economic impact could be devastating.
Ryanair expects thousands of redundancies across Europe and its Irish operation is unlikely to escape. Aer Lingus could lay off 900 staff on top of 250 jobs affected by the outsourcing of its catering department. Swissport has laid off up to 60pc of staff, it is understood. Daily rosters are down to a third of normal staffing levels, at best.
Providing employment and unemployment supports alone to unemployed or underemployed aviation staff at Dublin, Cork and Shannon is already a big drain on Government coffers. Many Ryanair and Aer Lingus staff are on 50pc pay with help from the wage subsidy scheme, while DAA staff are on 80pc. Other airport-based workers rely on the Covid unemployment payment or the dole.
One employment expert with knowledge of the situation believes that, based on the average industrial wage and the number of aviation employees likely receiving some type of support, the social welfare cost of keeping the sector on life support for the three months to the end of June alone could be as much as €80m. Few expect the problems to be overcome by then. A senior equity analyst at Davy, Stephen Furlong, believes the industry will take three years to recover: "If 2019 is the base level then it will be 2023 onwards to recover. There will be a lot of acceleration, particularly in Europe, of consolidation. Some airlines will disappear, a lot of airlines will be permanently smaller and some may be temporarily smaller." But, said Furlong, airlines that were strong coming into the crisis can remain strong if they take "corrective measures".
"We're very lucky in Ireland to have two of the strongest airlines in the world - Ryanair and Aer Lingus through its parent IAG. They both had a lot of cash going into this."
Of course, that provides no guarantees for Dublin. Ryanair will put its airplanes wherever they make the most money. Likewise, IAG and Aer Lingus helped turn Dublin into a rapidly expanding transatlantic hub but with lots of spare capacity now at London Heathrow, it is hard to say where IAG's priorities will lie in six months' time without the retiring Willie Walsh at the helm.
In recent days DAA CEO Dalton Philips sent a video update to some staff from a balcony overlooking the almost silent Dublin Airport apron. It began with a stark illustration of where Irish aviation is at right now: "You may hear that squawking noise in the background," he said. "That's the Airport Police trying to scare away the birds. Clearly with such a massive reduction in traffic all the birds are trying to nest."
The "unprecedented drop in traffic" would see passenger numbers in Dublin and Cork fall to just 9m this year (over 5m of those have already flown in the first three months) and fall 35pc in 2021. He said that meant the company was "too large" but he'd not yet calculated how many job losses were required.
"As we look into 2021 traffic looks like it is going to be in the 20 to 23 or 24 million mark - very hard to land on a specific number," adding that it didn't help that Minister for Health Simon Harris had suggested that
foreign travel looked 'highly unlikely' for the rest of the year.
Aviation, since the Wright Brothers' first 12-second flight, has been built on optimism and an ability to solve problems. Corneille believes when the pandemic passes people will still want to fly. "You can't put the travel genie back in the bottle," he said, but added that for passenger confidence to return, airlines must first get aircraft back in the sky and then promote services through special offers.
"In my experience," he said, "low fares are always a great antidote to fear."
Sunday Indo Business