ANALYSIS: Can Pre-Flight Testing Help Restore International Travel?

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The depth and length of the impact of the COVD-19 pandemic on the air transport industry struck hard in October. In a grim update on the financial outlook for airlines, IATA said it expected them to burn through $77 billion in the second half of the year—or $300,000 per minute—and not become cash positive until 2022.

Second waves of the virus hit regions like the UK and Europe and some parts of Asia, prompting governments to return to stronger lockdowns and border shutdowns. The number of deaths in the US passed 213,000, the highest of any country, and the number of cases was climbing in many states.

The result is a significantly lower demand for air travel for far longer than predicted when the pandemic began. Adding to the criticality of the situation, many government-aid packages for airlines, including some 36 payroll support programs, have expired. They were implemented when most people believed the pandemic and economic situation would be improved by fall and more normal levels of demand for air travel would be resumed. Instead, air travel was down 75% in August versus a year ago and IATA forecasts it will still be down 68% by December.

 “It is an unimaginably difficult time,” IATA director general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac said. “You will see more and more [airline] bankruptcies. It is critical and urgent.”

IATA, in unison with Airports Council International and other industry organizations, understandably has switched gears from trying to persuade governments to lift quarantines and border closures—a seemingly hopeless campaign while the coronavirus rages—to calling for 100% COVID-19 testing for all international passengers before their departure and return flights. Surveys show that 83% of participants would not consider air travel if there is a risk of being quarantined, but a similar percentage favors mandatory testing for all travelers.

Unanswered questions

IATA’s new position was not decided lightly, but there really is no choice. Yet it will be very difficult to implement and there are many unanswered questions. First, where and when will the tests be conducted and who pays for them? IATA believes the availability of viral antigen screening tests that are quick to give results (less than 15 minutes), cheap (less than $10), can be administered by a non-medical official and are highly reliable (around 98% valid result) will soon be widely available. That will make it possible for the tests to be conducted at departure airports, but this will require considerable work to administer in a way that does not cause crowding on the land side of terminals, which would be undesirable both from a distancing and a security point of view. IATA hopes that governments will foot the bill for tests, but that may be optimistic and problematic for states where taxpayers don’t see why they should “subsidize” those who choose to fly.

Then there’s all the details. Should testing include small children? How do governments, which have failed woefully to coordinate globally on their approaches to the pandemic, agree to a system of mutual recognition of each departure airport’s tests? Will labor groups worldwide support mandatory testing for all flight crews ahead of each flight? If quarantines continue in countries where people can easily cross borders via trains, cars or ferries, how will governments separate the flyers from the other travelers, or will they mandate tests for all international travelers? And what will be the criteria for ending mandatory testing?

So many questions. The global airline industry, however, cannot be sustained on domestic markets alone and the next big step in pandemic travel must be taken.

But whether mandatory testing, even if successfully implemented, will change the minds of those who choose not to fly until the pandemic is addressed is another matter. The industry has some pretty compelling statistics indicating that it is safe to fly, with there being a far higher risk of being struck by lightning than of catching the COVID-19 virus during a flight on a commercial airliner. IATA medical adviser David Powell said only about 44 people are thought to have caught the virus during a flight this year. That is among the 1.2 billion people who have flown, making the risk of transmission about one in 27.3 million. Even if some 90% of cases were not reported and the risk were 10 times higher, it would mean the likelihood of catching COVID-19 on a flight would be one in 2.73 million, making it “an uncommon event,” Powell said. He compared it to the much greater probability of being struck by lightning, a chance of between one in 500,000 and one in 1.2 million.

But the airline industry still hasn’t found the outside cheerleader, the celebrity, who can convey that safety message to the greater public, especially to those people they most need to convince: the majority that are staying grounded.

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief and Aviation Week Network Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief. She joined ATW in 2011 and oversees the editorial content and direction of ATW, Routes and Aviation Week Group air transport content.