Testing: Key to airlines Covid-19 strategy
July 22 2020 05:01 PM
Alex Macheras
Alex Macheras

By Alex Macheras

Major airlines have asked for a joint coronavirus testing programme, so that travel may resume between the US and Europe, home to some of the world’s most prominent and profitable air routes, such as London-New York.

IAG Group CEO Willie Walsh (IAG airlines: British Airways, Iberia, Vueling, Aer Lingus and Level) and United Airlines are among the carriers that have signed a letter to US and European Union leaders. “Given the unquestioned importance of trans-Atlantic air travel to the global economy as well as to the economic recovery of our businesses, we believe it is critical to find a way to re-open air services between the US and Europe,” the letter said.

It was sent to US Vice President Mike Pence and Ylva Johansson, the European commissioner for home affairs.

“We recognise that testing presents a number of challenges, however we believe that a pilot testing programme for the transatlantic market could be an excellent opportunity for government and industry to work together,” the letter added.

The EU doesn’t currently allow visits from US residents, although it has relaxed rules for non-essential travel from 15 countries with lower coronavirus infection rates.

The UK requires people arriving from the US to spend 14 days in self-imposed quarantine, while the US restricts travel by most passengers coming for Europe.

Airline leaders view Covid-19 testing as one of the few strategic options that has the ability reduce further damage to the already suffering global air travel sector. Ideally, testing would be completed in a rapid, reliable way prior to departure. The goal is for an airline to be able to declare a flight as 'sterile' or 'Covid-free'

IATA has recommended testing prior to arrival at the departure airport to limit crowds and potential infection while traveling.

China has also come out in favour of testing kits and wants passengers of inbound flights to provide negative Covid-19 test results before boarding.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) made the announcement on Tuesday as the government looks to further reduce the risk of imported coronavirus cases.

The airline industry is facing a huge challenge amid a severe downturn in passengers. Most major airlines have announced job cuts and staff furloughs, while some smaller players have collapsed.

For countries with a high rate of Covid-19 infection, airlines are having to implement an added layer of measures to push down the risk of carrying passengers who have coronavirus. It’s now mandatory for passengers flying on Qatar Airways who are boarding from any airport in Pakistan to present a negative Covid-19 test result issued within less than 72 hours prior to their flight departure from an accredited clinic.

The PCR test must be issued from one of the authorised laboratories and will be taken at the passenger's own expense. The test certificate is time-bound and the test needs to be done within 72 hours prior to the flight departure. If a passenger receives a positive test result, they will not be allowed to board the flight, and must either reschedule the flight or exchange your ticket for a future travel voucher with 10% additional value. It is mandatory to present the PCR negative test certificate at the time of check-in. In the event that passengers are unable to provide the above-mentioned requirements upon check in, they will not be accepted for boarding the flight from Pakistan. These requirements apply to both existing and new bookings.

Similarly, Hong Kong will not accept any passengers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Philippines, Indonesia, South Africa unless they test negative for coronavirus before the flight, and then test negative again on arrival at the airport.

Etihad Airways will not carry any passengers from Azerbaijan, Egypt, India, Lebanon, Philippines, Russia or Sri Lanka unless passengers presents a negative test result received within 72 hours before departure from an approved clinic.

In better news for the air travel sector, a coronavirus swab that gives a result in 12 minutes and costs only €12 has been successfully tested in Italy and may soon be used in Italian airports as pressure grows to swab every passenger entering the country. Made in South Korea, the swab was tested 1,000 times by the northern region of Veneto and compared with results from conventional, more time-consuming testing, with officials recording only two false results.

“It looks reliable and we hope to get it into use in Veneto by the autumn,” said Francesca Russo, who runs the region’s Covid-19 response team.

A spokesman for the Lazio region, which includes Rome, said that it was considering using the swab to test every arriving passenger at Fiumicino airport. “This test would be perfect at the airport — you could test 200 passengers getting off a plane at once,” he said.

IATA are clear they too, want testing for the wider air travel sector, in order to restore air travel demand. The regulator confirms that, as part of the travel process, Covid-19 testing would need to be conducted by trained public health officials and meet the following criteria:

Speed: Testing results should be delivered quickly, with results available in under an hour as the minimum standard.

Scale: If testing takes place at the airport, testing capacity of several hundreds of tests per hour must be achievable. The use of saliva for taking samples rather than nasal or throat swabs would facilitate this and would also be expected to reduce time and improve passenger acceptance.

Accuracy: Extremely high accuracy is essential. Both false negative and false positive results must be below 1%.

For pre-flight testing, governments would need to mutually recognise test results and data transmission should take place directly between passengers and governments in a similar manner as e-visa clearances are currently handled — but testing should facilitate travel and not provide an economic barrier, ruling out some of the costlier tests we’ve seen offered at some European airports during this pandemic.

*The author is an aviation analyst.

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