Air traffic has dropped 96% in the U.S. this year, due to a combination of government restrictions and traveler anxiety. This puts the travel industry overall in a huge financial bind, not just airlines, but also adjacent businesses like hotels, restaurants, tourist destinations, and some transport businesses.
Naturally, with millions of jobs in the balance, the travel industry is trying to find a safe method to start operations as soon as possible, and it’s believed that testing is the main method to try and do so.
The main reason that testing is so important for air travel is the (well-founded) fears that travelers have of being in the proximity of an infected person. We do know that airlines aren’t superspreader events compared to business conferences and factories, but they were critical in bringing the virus around the world. In addition, many people find little appeal in traveling for recreation when they would be required to quarantine for up to two weeks anyway. International Airport Travel Association director general/CEO Alexandre de Juniac, in a call for testing, said that it would “give people back their freedom to travel with confidence. And that will put millions of people back to work.”
Right now, we are seeing trial programs taking place around the world, most focus on testing passengers prior to departure either at the airport or remotely prior to coming to the airport. Some tests can provide results in as little as an hour. Examples of countries trying to implement such plans include China, Germany, and Singapore. The exact methods differ, though. China has a complex and time-consuming chain reaction test before departure. In Germany, a diagnostics firm offers a test that provides a result within 6-12 hours, for a price. QR code test results are also favored in order to reduce reliance on paper results.
How exactly could this work in practice? Scientists say that the idea could work, but the question is to what degree, and whether it would be enough. Right now, we are steadily trending upwards in terms of testing capacity and access. However, there still needs to be a balance found on a safe and reasonable testing plan for air travel. Equally complex is finding a method that everyone can harmonize on at a global level.
So, what are some of the roadblocks for reaching this point?
The test itself: Before widespread testing for travelers, a test would need to be found that is accurate, quick, and cheap enough to offer at a wide scale. As of right now, something at that level doesn’t exist.
Government acceptance: Governments would need to agree to accept results for any of their travelers and comply with any rules.
Technical/legal issues: There needs to be an unbiased way to certify any results in an airport, as well as a plan to protect passenger medical information.
Managing people: In the event of a positive test, a procedure for processing/handling infected people needs to be determined. Along with this, there’s the very real concern of asymptomatic spreaders and false negatives.
The nature of travel and how, in theory, it could lead to COVID-19 outbreaks in other areas, mean that finding methods to make it as safe as possible is paramount. Testing is a major part of this, but the International Air Transport Association also supports a layered approach. This means combining testing with:
- Social distancing in the airport
- Touchless check-in
- Wearing masks during flights/other PPE
- Minimal passenger movement in the cabin
Another useful add-on to travel is self-attestation. This way, spaces like airport terminals can be restricted to people who are symptom-free and have not had any contact with people infected with COVID-19 recently. A tool that can help facilitate this is the COVID-PreCheck app. Visit covidprecheck.net or access it from the COVID PreCheck app. This technology solution also can ingest a Rapid test for COVID infection for use by travellers or authorities.
How would this work in a travel context? Before a person goes to their airport, they can perform a self-attestation test in the app or perform a Rapid test for COVID infection and show the proof via the technology platform . When they pass, they will get a custom QR code. This makes it possible for them to showcase it at the terminal and get access to a COVID-free zone, where every other person recently tested negative.