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Airlines upbeat on recovery but labour shortages may hurt growth

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© Reuters. Global airline industry body International Air Transport Association (IATA) Director General Willie Walsh attends an interview with Reuters in Doha, Qatar, June 19, 2022. Picture taken June 19, 2022. REUTERS/Imad Creidi

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By Tim Hepher and Alexander Cornwell

DOHA (Reuters) -Global airlines battered by COVID-19 seem confident of narrowing their losses but still face challenges such as labour shortages at airports which could restrict post-crisis growth, industry executives at a summit in Doha said.

Recent flight delays and cancellations have been widely blamed on a lack of staff as an increasing number of people desert low-paid airport work for flexible working practices that prospered during the pandemic.

The head of host airline Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker, said labour shortages will be a big challenge in the coming months, though he added that his airline is “inundated with job applications”.

“People got into a bad habit of working from home,” Al Baker told a news conference.

“They feel they don’t need to go to an industry that really needs hands-on people,” he said, adding shortages in airport staff could hurt growth.

Emirates airline President Tim Clark said the Dubai carrier had been told by authorities at London Heathrow to axe an A380 flight there at short notice at the weekend, resulting in disruption.

But he urged the industry not to waste time bickering.

“The airport side of things have got to sort out their labor supply in critical areas of baggage, check-in, baggage systems. Get on with the job. There’s a lot of the blame game, everybody at each other’s throats … Guys, just get the job done.”

Clark added: “Do I see this sorting itself out over the next few months? Yes”

JetBlue Airways (NASDAQ:JBLU) Corp CEO Robin Hayes, speaking about industry labour shortages on a panel in Doha, said he is confident that the industry will get back to “a new normal” over the next two to three years.

Global airlines went on the offensive at the summit, criticising governments and airports over their handling of the recovery from the pandemic.

“The cost of government mismanagement was substantial. It devastated economies, disrupted supply chains and destroyed jobs,” Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association, told the sector’s annual meeting of more than 100 airline bosses.

Airlines have themselves been under fire from governments and consumer groups for disruption as travel demand resumes more briskly than expected, but the airline industry sees a common thread in uncoordinated government responses to the crisis.

“There was one virus, but each government invented its own methodology,” Walsh told the conference. “How can anybody have confidence in such a shambolic, uncoordinated, and knee-jerk response by governments?”

‘NOT THE RIGHT RESPONSE’

IATA’s Walsh cited research showing that border closures had barely arrested the spread of the pandemic while virtually halting international travel and crippling economies.

“Closing borders is not the right response to a pandemic,” Walsh said.

Governments worldwide lent more than $200 billion of support to airlines to curb bankruptcies during the pandemic, according to UK-based aviation consultancy Ishka.

Airlines expected to narrow losses in 2022 and may make a profit next year as air travel recovers, IATA said. Walsh said he was “not concerned” about the current demand and supply environment.

Korean Air Lines Co Ltd’s chief executive said he is concerned that rising interest rates and inflation could impact consumer demand and that rising competition could lower ticket prices. The high U.S. dollar is “painful” and makes debt costs higher, he added.

United Airlines addressed the issue of fuel prices, with its Chief Executive Scott Kirby (NYSE:KEX) saying he expected them to stay high in the long term.

Speaking to reporters, he added that based on current prices the airline’s fuel bill would total $12 billion this year.

Walsh said confused government policies had worsened disruption seen particularly in Europe as flying restarted.

Britain has criticised airlines for delays and called on the industry to refrain from overbooking flights they can’t operate.

Airlines and airports frequently spar at the industry’s major gatherings, with government interests and jobs at stake.

Walsh, who built a reputation as a bruiser in clashes with unions and governments as former head of British Airways, rallied under-pressure CEOs with an attack on the practice of hiking airport fees to recoup revenues lost during the crisis.

“Try that in a competitive business. ‘Dear Valued Customer, we are charging you double for your coffee today because you could not buy one yesterday’. Who would accept that?” he said.

Airports have said they are unfairly criticised by airlines and called on them to focus on resolving their own problems.

Coronavirus

China slashes COVID quarantine time for international travellers

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: People line up at a nucleic acid testing station, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Beijing, China, June 16, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

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BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China on Tuesday slashed the quarantine time for inbound travellers by half in a major easing of one of the world’s strictest COVID-19 curbs, which have deterred travel in and out of the country since 2020.

Quarantine at centralised facilities has been cut to seven days from 14, and subsequent at-home health monitoring has been reduced to three days from seven, the National Health Commission said.

The latest guidelines from the health authority also eased quarantine requirements for close contacts of people who have tested positive for the new coronavirus.

China has cautiously eased its COVID curbs on cross-border travellers in recent months, with health officials saying the shorter incubation period of the Omicron variant allows for an adjustment of quarantine periods.

The Chinese capital Beijing in recent months has already reduced the quarantine period at centralised facilities to 10 days from 14.

China, last month, also removed some COVID-19 test requirements for people flying in from countries such as the United States.

“We believe that today’s announcement will be welcomed by the American business community,” the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai said on its official WeChat account.

The quarantine adjustment will make it easier for companies to bring staff to China, and for Chinese companies and their executives to visit the United States, AmCham said.

Stock markets rose in Hong Kong and the mainland, with the Hang Seng Index reversing losses and ticking up roughly 0.4% and the CSI300 Index gaining 0.7%.

Shares in mainland tourism companies jumped more than 5%.

China’s aviation regulator said this month it had been in touch with some countries to steadily increase the number of flights in the second half of 2022.

IN THE CLEAR

Beijing and Shanghai reported on Tuesday no new local COVID infections, the first time both cities were in the clear simultaneously since late February, after months of fighting their worst-ever outbreaks.

The milestone for the two cities, achieved on Monday, came after their daily caseloads dropped to single digits over the past week, allowing Shanghai to gradually resume eating in at restaurants and Beijing to reopen some leisure venues including the Universal Beijing Resort.

Shanghai Communist Party chief Li Qiang declared on Saturday that authorities had “won the war to defend Shanghai” against COVID-19.

The Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) Co’s Shanghai Disney Resort said on Tuesday that it would reopen the Disneyland theme park on June 30; it had been shut for more than three months.

Authorities, however, were adamant the government’s so-called dynamic zero COVID policy, which aims at blocking flare-ups from spreading as they crop up, remains in place.

Beijing would “fight against any new outbreaks at the outset and with speed and resolutely break their transmission channel”, Cai Qi, the city’s top Communist Party chief, was quoted as saying in a report by the party-backed Beijing Daily.

Earlier on Monday, the Beijing Daily apparently misquoted Cai as saying the city would maintain its COVID control effort for “the next five years”.

The newspaper afterwards removed the reference and its chief, Zhao Jingyun, said it was an error but that did not prevent some suspicion among the public.

“Surely it wasn’t a mistake! It’s meant to gauge public opinion!” said a user of the Weibo (NASDAQ:WB) social media platform.

Another Weibo user said even if it was a mistake, “at least the higher-ups are now aware of how helpless we all feel and how we detest the current counter-epidemic policies”.

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Coronavirus

Beijing, Shanghai both free of new local COVID cases for first time in months

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: People line up at a nucleic acid testing station, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Beijing, China, June 16, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China’s capital, Beijing, and the financial hub of Shanghai reported on Tuesday no new local COVID infections, the first time both cities were in the clear at the same time since late February, after months of fighting their worst-ever outbreaks.

The milestone for the two cities, achieved on Monday, came after their daily caseloads dropped to single digits over the past week, allowing Shanghai to gradually resume eating in at restaurants and Beijing to reopen some leisure venues including the Universal Beijing Resort.

Shanghai Communist Party chief Li Qiang declared on Saturday that authorities had “won the war to defend Shanghai” against COVID-19, following a crushing two-month citywide lockdown that was finally lifted in early June.

Authorities, however, remained wary and were adamant that the government’s so-called dynamic zero COVID policy, which aims at blocking flare-ups from spreading as they crop up, remains in place.

Beijing would “fight against any new outbreaks at the outset and with speed and resolutely break their transmission channel”, Cai Qi, the city’s top Communist Party chief, was quoted as saying in a report by the party-backed Beijing Daily.

The city would build “a solid virus barrier”, Cai was quoted as saying on Monday.

Earlier on Monday, the Beijing Daily apparently misquoted Cai as saying the city would maintain its COVID control effort for “the next five years”.

The newspaper afterwards removed the reference and its chief, Zhao Jingyun, said it was an error but that did not prevent some suspicion among the public.

“Surely it wasn’t a mistake! It’s meant to gauge public opinion!” said a user of the Weibo (NASDAQ:WB) social media platform.

Another Weibo user said even if it was a mistake, “at least the higher-ups are now aware of how helpless we all feel and how we detest the current counter-epidemic policies”.

Despite easing COVID restrictions in Beijing and Shanghai, their combined 47 million residents have been told to go through COVID testing every few days, to maintain access to public spaces and transport.

Elsewhere in mainland China, a total of 22 domestically transmitted infections were reported for June 27, including five in the southern technology hub Shenzhen.

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Coronavirus

U.S. appeals court vacates federal vaccine mandate pending additional hearing

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A resident over 50 years old and immunocompromised receives a second booster shot of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine in Waterford, Michigan, U.S., April 8, 2022. REUTERS/Emily Elconin

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court panel said on Monday it would convene a full panel to reconsider President Joe Biden’s executive order requiring civilian federal employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and set aside the order pending that hearing.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which is based in New Orleans, had reinstated the vaccine order in April by a 2-1 vote after it was blocked by a district court judge in January. [L2N2W530Z]

The court said on Monday that it would reconsider the case en banc, which means it will be heard by a larger panel of judges. No date was given for the hearing. Pending that hearing, the court said it would vacate the April ruling, which means that Biden’s order cannot be enforced.

Biden said in September he would require about 3.5 million government workers to get vaccinated by Nov. 22, barring a religious or medical accommodation, or face discipline or firing. Despite the legal fight, more than 90% of federal workers were vaccinated by December, the White House said last year.

The president’s vaccine and mask mandates have faced stiff opposition, led by Republicans, which have turned public safety measures endorsed by disease experts into a political and legal battle in the United States.

The United States passed the milestone of 1 million dead from the coronavirus in May. More than 250 people still die of the disease daily, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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