Could preflight COVID-19 testing allow the struggling airline industry to take off again before a vaccine becomes widely available?
Some airlines are attempting to find out.
On Monday, United Airlines launched its free rapid-testing pilot program for trans-Atlantic flights, with all passengers over the age of two plus every crew member receiving rapid tests for the coronavirus at Newark Liberty International Airport for the flight to London Heathrow.
A day later, American Airlines and British Airways announced a coronavirus testing trial on select flights from the US and Heathrow. Customers will take three tests – before the flight, upon landing and again three days later at their destination.
The airlines say that the purpose of these trials is to demonstrate that testing can open the skies and eliminate the need for quarantining passengers upon arrival.
“The airlines are doing everything they can to get their customers back,” Prof. Genevieve Giuliano, a transportation expert at the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy, told The Media Line. “By doing preflight testing, they are trying to assure passengers that they will be safe, even with middle seats filled.”
The airlines are doing everything they can to get their customers back. By doing preflight testing, they are trying to assure passengers that they will be safe, even with middle seats filled
Last month, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways, the national carrier of the United Arab Emirates and the second-largest airline in the UAE after Dubai-based Emirates, launched its own COVID-19 testing regime for all passengers.
From October 1 until December 31, Etihad is offering a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test with the price of an outgoing ticket from Abu Dhabi International Airport except for China-bound flights. Passengers can get the test done between 48 and 96 hours before departure at collection facilities in the country.
The UK on November 12 reopened its air corridor to the UAE with the option of taking a PCR test 96 hours before boarding or upon arrival in the Gulf state. Passengers do not need to self-isolate for two weeks under the new rules.
Bahrain and Qatar were the other Middle Eastern countries added to the UK government’s travel corridor after they met the criteria for infection rates.
“These are all steps in the right direction, but while the world waits for the game-changing vaccine, we need to abandon barriers to travel, such as ineffective and costly quarantines, and replace them with rapid, cost-effective testing on departure at airports around the world,” Gloria Guevara, president and CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council, told The Media Line.
These are all steps in the right direction, but while the world waits for the game-changing vaccine, we need to abandon barriers to travel, such as ineffective and costly quarantines, and replace them with rapid, cost-effective testing on departure at airports around the world
“The longer we wait,” she stated, “the more the struggling travel and tourism sector faces collapse.”
According to the latest data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), weak passenger demand continued in September, with total year-on-year demand down 72.8% compared to September 2019. International passenger demand plunged by 88.8%, and domestic demand was down 43.3% compared to September 2019.
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The Middle East, with 9.1% of world share in air travel, was the hardest hit market in September, according to the IATA report, plummeting 88.9% in total demand compared to a year ago. The region’s airlines posted a 90.2% international traffic decline for September.
Experts caution that turbulence from the global pandemic will continue despite the gradual implementation of testing schemes before boarding.
“Tests at airports are beginning to become available. But they are costly, and the results are often not made available until 24 to 48 hours after the test,” Allen Michel, a professor of finance at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, told The Media Line.
“Until passengers are confident that other passengers on a flight are COVID-free, they’ll be reluctant to fly,” he said.
Until passengers are confident that other passengers on a flight are COVID-free, they’ll be reluctant to fly
“Cleaning the planes is not enough,” Michel continued. “The passengers must have confidence that other passengers are COVID-free. We’re a long way from that standard.”
James G. Hodge, Jr., director of the Center for Public Health Law and Policy at Arizona State University, told The Media Line that unless rapid testing is done at the airport with the results made available just before boarding, preflight testing is a flawed approach. Even with rapid testing it is problematic.
“Even if conducted in real-time, COVID-19 tests are not entirely accurate, rendering unsure results, and even if the passengers aboard the plane are verified COVID-free upon boarding, it does not assure they leave the plane uninfected,” Hodge noted.
“Contaminants on the plane itself, if improperly cleaned, or workers servicing the plane prior to takeoff who are ill and failing to observe precautions, may infect persons in flight,” he continued. “Risks can be minimized for sure, but not negated completely.”
Contaminants on the plane itself, if improperly cleaned, or workers servicing the plane prior to takeoff who are ill and failing to observe precautions, may infect persons in flight
Still, Hodge says that preflight testing can provide reassurance to passengers and help limit regional and global transmission, although testing should be used in addition to other measures that can be more effective in preventing inflight infections, including the extensive use of masks by passengers, the sanitizing of planes, the assurance of functioning air filtration systems and strict adherence to employee safety measures.
Here are the latest COVID-19 numbers for the Middle East and North Africa as of 16:00 UTC on Thursday:
|Country||Confirmed cases||Deaths||Recovered||Active Cases|
|United Arab Emirates||155,254||544||146,469||8,241|