Hololei regards timing of Estonian flights ban peculiar

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It is a bit peculiar that Estonia decided to ban flights during a time other countries are opening up again, European Commission Director General for Mobility and Transport Henrik Hololei finds.

What is your opinion of Estonia’s rather sudden flights ban laid down on Sunday? (Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Taavi Aas decided to ban flights to high-risk coronavirus countries, including the United Kingdom, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, Turkey, Belarus and Russia – ed.)

Banning flights to certain counties is up to Estonia to decide, while it is perhaps a bit unexpected in a situation where no other EU country has notified the Commission of new measures that include flight bans in the past month.

Several countries took such measures in March. Today (the interview took place on Monday – ed.), such restrictions are in place in around ten European countries. However, the past month has seen countries lift such restrictions, instead of adding new ones. Estonia is trying to swim upstream here for some reason. It is all the more peculiar as Estonia has refrained from laying down flight bans until now. Therefore, I really do not understand why such measures were needed now.

The European Commission will have to be notified. It has not been done yet, but I’m sure that as a country that honors the rule of law, Estonia will act in accordance with EU rules. (The European Commission received Estonia’s notice on Tuesday at 4.26 p.m. Estonian time – ed.)

Countries that until recently included Estonia usually prefer passenger restrictions and quarantine requirements that will hopefully be eased or lifted in the coming weeks so EU internal borders could be opened in full and free movement facilitated.

It is relatively unpleasant also for airlines who have made plans only to be delivered such a surprise. Indeed, but all sorts of things happen in a crisis. It is unexpected to receive such news on a Sunday evening.
Estonia had not introduced a single flight ban until now. Doing it during a time others are opening their borders again is a little peculiar.

When was the last time you used public transport?

Two weeks ago, when I took the subway home after a transport ministers’ group call.

How did it feel? Are things different somehow?

There were very few people, but the subway was fully operational.

Were there any special conditions?

There were not at the time, while masks are now obligatory when using public transport in Belgium.

When did you last fly and when do you think you can fly again?

When I attended the Singapore Airshow in the middle of February. The first flight that was canceled was to take me to Sydney for the first EU/Australian transport dialogue.

Next time? When borders are reopened and flying becomes possible again. I’m entertaining the possibility that my annual consultations with American partners in Washington could take place in July, but I suppose it’s no good to get one’s hopes up at this time.

What is your opinion of suggestions that holiday destinations will be determined by how far people are willing to drive for most Europeans this summer?

I would not be that pessimistic. A good reference point was provided by the European Commission’s transport and tourism guidelines from last week that describe steps toward restoring movement and precautions to facilitate safe travel.

Naturally, Europe is interested in tourism recovering. It has a major role to play in the European economy, making up around 10 percent of GDP. Everyone understands it requires specific conditions. Firstly, that the general healthcare situation must be acceptable.

Opening movement between countries in a similar epidemiological situation is one important step. This requires border control and quarantine measures to be lifted.

Once all these conditions have been met and it is safe to travel again in terms of medical concerns, transport providers will be able to take people to different destinations. It is clear that there will not be movement of great masses this year. However, I would like to hope the possibility of travel will be restored by July-August.

What are the principal concerns for major modes of transport that people bring to you?

They are rather similar, broadly speaking. Around 90 percent of passenger transport – aviation, shipping, railroad and coaches – has disappeared.

The effect is the same on everyone and so is the need for support. Access to additional capital is needed. We also need specific measures for different sectors as concerns licenses, the need to extend deadlines etc.
Next, we need a state aid framework and to help people using job risk mechanisms that allow people to keep their jobs at least in the short term.

A lot of transport sector workers are highly qualified and difficult to find on the market. A lot of money has been spent on training them. Companies are interested in keeping these people and not losing them to the broader labor market.

How realistic would it be to fill buses or ferries to half capacity and leave the middle row empty on flights?

First of all, we need to introduce health protocols for all modes of transport. Safety has always been the number one concern in transport. We have seen another crisis that left a permanent mark in the past 20 years – the security crisis. When means of transport were weaponized by terrorists, it created the need for heightened security measures.

That said, health protocols differ in various modes of transport. For example, based on the quality of air. Talking about planes and high-speed trains, they sport virtually hospital-level ventilation, which creates different conditions than what we have when we take a coach or other form of transport that merely has air conditioning.

The general approach is to observe the safe distance principle first. Additionally, and especially in situations where safe distance cannot be guaranteed, passengers must be required to wear masks. Ventilation systems on board flights and bullet trains could be enough to avoid having to use more drastic measures, such as limits on occupancy.

Limiting occupancy could lead us to a situation where everything looks brilliant on paper, while transport services providers might not see financial sense in returning to the market.

The important thing is to find a sensible balance and always proceed from the need to protect people’s health. None of these measures can rule out risks. They simply aim to minimize them.

I took a bus from Tallinn to Tartu and back again over the weekend, and no one was wearing a mask. Would you recommend wearing a mask in such a situation or would you even make it mandatory?

Wearing a mask also shows respect for your fellow passengers. If it can create trust in the mode of transport, wearing one is surely justified. It also has a certain positive effect on other people in terms of making them feel safe.

Could masks be made mandatory everywhere in Europe?

This is something our guidelines also point to. The first thing is to ensure safe distance, and if that is impossible, masks should be worn.

I imagine that as air traffic gradually recovers, masks will be used on flights everywhere. That said, decisions are up to member states. For example, masks are mandatory on public transport in Belgium, while they are not in many other member states.

We cannot approach this matter from the point of view of transport and must instead look at recommendations given by agencies responsible for healthcare, mainly the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

The aviation shutdown caused a lot of people to lose their travel bookings. It once again became abundantly clear how some airlines have gone to great lengths to hide parts of their websites where one can ask for compensation or file a complaint. Others have very few operators working in their call centers. Could the EU do something to make airlines feature complaint forms and hire more call center staff?

European aviation regulations are very clear on these things. It is also clear that we are in an extraordinary situation today and compensation will not be made available for missed flights, while people can ask for their money back or get a voucher if they so prefer.

The passenger must always be able to get their money back. Member states’ consumer protection authorities are primarily responsible here. If precepts are in order for airlines, watchdogs must follow through to make sure the EU air passenger rights framework is observed and implemented all over the union.

But we must understand that these are extraordinary circumstances and no airline can have a lot of people processing these claims. It takes time to process these things.

Last week saw brilliant recommendation that use of vouchers could be extended in situations where it proves impossible to use them inside one year – as it might take longer to find a vaccine – or that an automatic money back guarantee could apply. Can we hope such an obligation for airlines will be included in European consumer law?

First of all, I believe some clarification is in order. Vouchers cannot be extended, while it is possible to fly after they expire if the ticket has been purchased inside one year.

The European Commission has produced guidelines for making vouchers more attractive by giving them a longer run of validity, money back guarantees and adding flexibility.

It is a crisis measure aimed at people trusting vouchers instead of asking for their money back. Liquidity is the number one problem for airlines and many of them are unable to return customers’ money immediately. That said, people have the right to get their money back if they ask for it.

The idea is to emphasize solidarity by making vouchers more attractive. It is not a legal obligation but simply a recommendation. By the way, [Dutch airline] KLM said yesterday it has made its vouchers more attractive by increasing their value to 115 percent of the ticket price.

Talking about the future, it is a temporary crisis measure, not a part of European air passenger rights. You can opt for the voucher if you want to, but no one can force one on you. That said, we cannot rule out airlines perceiving it as positive and making their vouchers more attractive in the long term.

Rules for state aid that can be made available to airlines have been relaxed, while it has been pointed out that countries are not the same in terms of size, wealth and position. How to rule out, for example, Lufthansa that is backed by the German state gobbling up a smaller and poorer country’s airline?

The important thing is to preserve one of the crown jewels of the EU common market that is its common aviation market based on competition, good connections and sensible prices. For this, we need to have competitive airlines also once the crisis ends. That is the only way to ensure good connections and sensible prices.

The current situation, where some countries are dispensing state aid while others are not, risks market distortion. That said, sate aid deals are not without conditions. Including in terms of buying up competitors and other measures aimed to make sure the market will function in the future.

We currently have two types of aviation companies. Those that have been granted considerable state aid while they have not been the most effective in the past, with some even returning from the dead so to speak, and those that are known as effective and functional enterprises that have had sufficient cash reserves and have not been forced to ask for state aid. It is important they remain important market participants also in the future.

All agencies are working toward retaining the common aviation market under common conditions. It is correct to say that state aid is more feasible for some countries than it is for others. Vice President of the European Commission Margrethe Vestager said as much in an interview she gave over the weekend where she warned against the possible market distorting effect of state aid.

It is also true that most approved state aid schemes are from countries with excellent policymaking capacity, meaning that some companies stand to benefit more than others. We are keeping a close eye on the process and will do out best to retain a competitive aviation market.

In other words, you largely agree with criticism CEO of Ryanair Michael O’Leary has for Austrian and French state aid plans?

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I’m aware of criticism. However, so far, everything has happened strictly within EU state aid rules in the crisis. Any disputes will be settled by the European Court of Justice.

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