Alicia Abascal, Traffic Rights and Partner Agreements Manager at Iberia, looks back over a few non-stop months
Your department’s work isn’t widely known about. How would you summarise it?
We manage traffic rights and the permits and authorisations to take off and land in the destination countries for Iberia’s regular schedule and for the charter schedule. AESA – the Spanish authority – has to approve the commercial schedule, and we also request permits from all the countries we fly over. For instance, on the China route during the health corridor, we flew over Russia, Mongolia and sometimes Belarus, which is now forbidden due to the conflicts – and we needed permission from all those countries.
Do you take into account possible changes caused by factors such as the weather?
Yes, there’s always a Plan B, an alternative route. When we request the permits, we usually include at least one or two alternatives. If the route is very long, there may be up to three.
Are some countries more difficult than others?
Yes. Russia, for instance, is difficult because it has very comprehensive control of its airspace and you can’t enter and exit at all the points you might like. We have alternative routes inside Russia that are pre-checked with the country.
What is the process from when Iberia decides to open a new route?
First, the Office of Network Scheduling, in conjunction with Operations, defines the route we want to fly. Then Navigation Areas draws the route with the countries that we are going to fly over and where we are going to land, and we set the machinery in motion. The first thing is to see if there is a bilateral agreement between the origin and destination countries. We see whether there are traffic rights – whether the agreement between the Spanish government and government of the destination country provides for the possibility of flying there. A bilateral agreement contains drawings of everything you can do, everything that each state permits,. And, of course, we listen to the airlines and their interests in terms of traffic rights. If the point you want to fly to is included and there are traffic rights, then we move on to the permits, which is the more technical approval. We request the permits, providing the aircrafts’ technical documentation, the route, the pilots’ licences sometimes, even medical certificates, etc. While the permits are being obtained from the countries we’ll fly to, we also request them from the countries we fly over, and then the green light is given.
We’re talking about months of work, right?
Yes, it’s months of work, especially if it’s a new route. But it’s also true that everything has changed with the pandemic. Since there has been so much uncertainty and the changes are so fast, the requests for permits for a flight schedule – previously done by IATA seasons in big blocks, with changes and increases in operation communicated ad hoc – are now different. The authorities want to have very rigorous control of everything that flies. Civil aviation has been mixed a bit with Immigration and Customs. Right now, in the best case, they give you a two-month permit and you have to do continuous monitoring. The good part is that what used to be managed in months is now sometimes done in four days, because of the urgency of the moment and such drastic changes, and because we have no choice but to adapt the capacity to the restrictions, which come and go, and to customer demands. These have also changed due to Covid-19. Today, customers are more interested in nature and beach destinations, and places that we’d never thought about, such as the Maldives.
Your department was one of the first impacted by the pandemic, due to repatriations. How do you recall that moment?
I recall it tremendously, because it was literally non-stop, working almost 24 hours a day. 2020 was marked by the closure of borders, with the peak when even European states closed off to each other. We had to repatriate a lot of people from places, in many cases, where we had never flown and where we had no logistical or governmental support to intercede. We were managing repatriation flights with Australia, Manila, Bangkok and also – right in the middle of the health corridor – China, where they are eight or nine hours ahead, depending on the month and the time zone.
So, who were your interlocutors?
They’re usually the civil aviation of each country and, at most, the embassies. But at that time, they were Health and, especially, Immigration and Customs. That part was a different challenge, and I have to acknowledge that I enjoyed it. I was even asked a few times by the police from Colombia, or any country, to comment on restrictions and explain how we were dealing with them. It was a brutal change because there was a real urgency to get home people who were stranded in many places, and another real urgency to take medical supplies to where there weren’t even any masks.
The health corridor was one of Iberia’s big achievements. You had to react immediately.
The impact was quite strong, because the Chinese route is complex per se, with a lot of difficulty in managing the permits. So it was already a much regulated environment in normal conditions. If you add a pandemic with very changing restrictions, managing the permits was crucial to taking the medical supplies. It was very difficult to get them in a timely manner and to get through the filter of all the requirements that China was asking for at the time, in addition to all the countries we were flying over. We made some 150 flights with medical supplies, which were managed one by one. China didn’t offer the possibility of doing them in blocks – it wanted to oversee every detail. And the changes, the delays, the advances, managing them with China, and with Russia and Mongolia, entailed a lot of responsibility because, if there is a mistake, they don’t impose a fine – they reject your flight plan.
Do you think it was the most satisfying moment of your career?
Yes. Despite being very difficult months, it was very pleasing to see the effects of our work. At the time, there were no limits between the parties involved. We worked with the authorities as a single team. We worked together as one in order to take vulnerable people back home. The teamwork was very positive.
Was that the best thing, given the situation?
Yes. It was the transversality, teamwork and everyone rowing in the same direction. It was the moment of truth. In that sense, everything was done very well.
What will continue to be applied from what was learned?
Agility and flexibility, the ability to adapt to changes. That entails an important additional effort, but there are things that, in collaboration with the authorities, can be made flexible. And it also taught us that, despite procedures, sometimes things happen that change your perspective. Flexibility is here to stay.
At a personal level, what have these past two years taught you?
Apart from the greater resilience I’ve taken from this – although in my position, you need to have it to begin with [laughs] – I’ve learned that things can change at any moment, and that you shouldn’t take anything for granted. Adapting to changes is very important. In my department, managing permits after the pandemic has nothing to do with what it was like before the pandemic, and I think it will have little to do with it for a long time. Being used to managing everything in big blocks, sometimes you forgot how wonderful it is to be able to fly. When we managed the permits one flight at a time, we’d say, “It’s a single flight”. Every flight counts, and you shouldn’t lose that perspective. You have to appreciate how wonderful it is to fly in every moment.