As the era of COVID-safe travel dawns, testing is likely to be a key factor in the safe resumption of international travel.

The implementation of rapid, accurate, affordable, easy-to-operate, scalable and systematic COVID testing for all passengers before departure, as an alternative to quarantine measures, may well be in order to re-establish global air connectivity.

Whilst Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests, which take several hours to process in a lab, have become the accepted norm, there are antigen tests that can be processed on-site and typically give results within about 15 minutes.

Antigen Rapid Test
The Abbott rapid COVID antigen test returns a result in 15 minutes, and serves as a “COVID passport” for use throughout the travel process

International travel is down 92% on 2019 levels. Some governments have cautiously re-opened their borders since then, but there has been limited uptake; this has been because either quarantine measures are making travel impractical, or the frequent changes in COVID-19 measures are making planning a trip impossible.

Testing Before Departing, Not On Arrival

At a recent press briefing, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) CEO, Alexandre de Junaic, said that rapid testing needs to be seamlessly integrated into the departure process.

“[We] firmly believe that testing must be done before departure. This seals-off the system. In addition to giving governments the confidence to re-open borders, this approach will also boost passenger confidence knowing that everybody on the aircraft has been tested.”

Alexandre de Junaic, CEO, IATA
Airport COVID Testing
Airport COVID Testing

COVID testing before departure is the preferred option, as it will create a “clean” environment throughout the travel process. Testing on arrival dents passenger confidence, with the very real potential for a quarantine at a destination in the event of a positive result.

The IATA does not see COVID-19 testing becoming a permanent fixture in the air travel experience, but it will likely be needed in the medium-term for air travel to re-establish itself.

“Many see the development of a vaccine as the panacea for the pandemic. It will certainly be an important step, but even after an effective vaccine is globally recognized, ramping up production and distribution is likely to take many months. Testing will be a much-needed interim solution.”

Alexandre de Junaic, CEO, IATA

Public Backing

The IATA’s public opinion research has revealed strong support for COVID-19 testing in the travel process. Some 65% of 4700 travellers surveyed agreed that quarantine should not be required if a person tests negative for COVID-19.

Passenger support for testing is evident in the following survey results:

  • 84% agreed that testing should be required of all travellers
  • 88% agreed that they are willing to undergo testing as part of the travel process
Airport COVID Test
Rapid test processing is key to the program’s success

Existing Trials

Lufthansa plans to start making rapid COVID-19 antigen tests available to passengers in October, according to Reuters. Interestingly, the airline is also weighing-up the option of opening test centres at airports in the United States and Canada; indicating the potential for testing at both departure points.

Airlines such as Alitalia have already begun experimenting with COVID-free flights, requiring a test before departure and boosting passenger peace-of-mind.