June 15, 2021

Test of resolve

Traveller testing is progressing but scaling it up won’t be easy. Gary Noakes reports

Heathrow Chief Executive John Holland-Kaye doesn’t mince his words on Covid testing: “There will be no airports and airlines if we don’t solve this problem in the next few months,” he told industry colleagues at September’s World Aviation Festival. Like most in the travel sector, he is convinced that traveller tests before departure are the only way to allow airlines to resume something close to normality.

IATA’s Chief Economist Brian Pearce is right behind him, particularly after calculating that global air travel will be down 66% this year. “Quarantine, even if the market is open, is equivalent to a full travel ban, which is why we need a mechanism – such as effective testing – in order to open these markets up,” he warned.

Heathrow’s passenger numbers remain at 15-20% of normal levels and testing facilities in Terminal 2 and 5, set up back in August in partnership with Collinson and Swissport, sit unused because the UK Government has not yet given its approval: “The thing that stops people from travelling is inconsistency between governments,” Holland-Kaye said.

While a co-ordinated global approach still seems a long way off, there have been pockets of progress. A trial began at Heathrow in mid-October inviting travellers heading to Hong Kong and Italy to take a ‘rapid saliva swab’, known as a Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification test, or Lamp test, which doesn’t need to be sent to a laboratory so gets quicker results (around 20 minutes) than the widely-used PCR test. Costing £80, it’s available with British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Cathay Pacific. This scheme is also being run by Collinson and Swissport. “With countries around the world adding the UK to their list of ‘high risk’ countries, we need to find a way to work with governments, leading travel brands and other commercial entities to safely open up travel out of the UK,” said David Evans, Collinson Joint Chief Executive, on the day of its launch.

“Quarantine, even if the market is open, is equivalent to a full travel ban, which is why we need a mechanism – such as effective testing – in order to open these markets up”

In another Collinson/Swissport initiative, trials of a ‘health passport’ took place on a United Airlines flight between Heathrow and Newark. Known as the CommonPass system, the scheme is backed by the World Economic Forum.

The UK Government has promised to take a lead in establishing a common international standard, but its short-term focus seems to be elsewhere. It insists airport testing will not work because it would only pick up about 7% of those who are asymptomatic. Instead, it is favouring a ‘test and release’ system, where those arriving from ‘high-risk’ countries take a home test around a week into the 14-day quarantine and can end their isolation early if they test negative. The Department of Transport has, however, confirmed that it is now “talking to the US” about a transatlantic testing regime working with the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

An air corridor between London and New York has been high on the business travel wishlist since the early days of quarantine, strongly championed by American Express Global Business Travel. Known as ‘Project NyLon’, Amex GBT and others in the corporate travel sector believe there should be a bi-lateral quarantine exemption for travellers who book through TMCs. They argue that corporate travellers should be the pioneers because they represent only 15-30% of passengers, making it easier for airlines, airports and governments to test new protocols. “In addition, business travellers are well briefed and their information and itineraries are available for contact tracing purposes,” adds Martin Ferguson, Amex GBT Vice President of Public Affairs.

Clive Wratten, Business Travel Association CEO agrees. “If you are limiting it to business travellers to test it on certain air corridors, then the capacity is there. The cost of PCR testing is proving to be a bit of a barrier, but it’s minimal when you get to some sort of scale and within the corporate world it is not prohibitive.”

Wratten contrasts progress made in Germany, the Middle East and Singapore with the UK. “Our biggest worry is that we are sitting right at the back from a UK Government perspective. There’s a change, but not as fast as we would like, but now they see the long winter without an economic upturn and pace is increasing.”

Wratten recognised concern from public health officials that testing at ports could impact the NHS, but said new generation tests “do not need lab capacity”.

“The other issue is over the accuracy of testing and the belief that it does not mitigate anywhere near enough of the risk. Again, that is rapidly becoming an out-of-date view,” he adds.

There remain practical issues, as IATA chief executive Alexandre de Juniac admitted: “Finding sufficient, fast, high-accuracy, affordable, easy to use tests will not be easy and, of course, the priority will be to fulfil medical needs before the requirements for travel.”

This is neatly explained at Frankfurt airport, where Lufthansa’s testing facility is open to all passengers on both departure and arrival. In September it increased capacity to more than 10,000 passengers a day. A standard 12-hour test is €59 and a six-hour express process €139. Lufthansa says results are “generally within 4-5 hours”, although it admits not all are processed as quickly. The airline said capacity was currently “more than sufficient during times of high demand”, but universal Covid testing needs significant progress.

Frankfurt’s initiative is impressive, but 10,000 a day is a fraction of the airport’s 2019 figure of 193,000 daily average passengers. Frankfurt’s total 70.6 million passengers last year compares with Heathrow’s 80.9 million – proof that testing currently remains an answer for only a slim proportion of previous passenger levels.

However, Lufthansa Group Chief Executive Carsten Spohr is adamant testing will bridge the divide until a vaccination is developed. Lufthansa’s current scheme is a PCR test, which he described as “slow and expensive”. The alternative, an antigen test, is “just around the corner”, he said.

“We actually went through them at our training centre and it took only 15 minutes for all 50 of us to get our results…this eventually will be how we board our aircraft, I’m sure. Antigen is a game-changer for our industry.”

As well as the time advantage, antigen tests are €5-7, according to Spohr. “The costs of this are not going to be in our way.” He predicted its introduction “by second quarter next year” across global networks, proceeded by use on air corridors from Germany to the US by Christmas 2020. IATA is similarly optimistic, with De Juniac saying testing was “ready from October” costing only “$6-$10”.

“The cost of PCR testing is proving to be a bit of a barrier, but it’s minimal when you get to some sort of scale and within the corporate world it is not prohibitive”

The industry hopes he is right, as currently test-enabled air corridors are few. United Airlines’ boast of becoming the first US carrier to offer testing was tempered by it being restricted to San Francisco to Hawaii flights. Launched on October 15, the same-day tests at San Francisco cost a hefty $250 or $80 for a home testing kit used 72 hours before departure. United stressed Hawaii was “basically a pilot programme” but added extensions were “all contingent on testing capacity”.

So is testing the panacea to cure corporate travel reluctance? “No, it probably isn’t, but it’s a huge part of achieving that and for some it’s what they need,” says Wratten.

“It’s about reducing their exposure to any duty of care claim – to know that you send and receive an employee back Covid-free will achieve that.”

American Airlines

American Airlines has begun pilot tests at Dallas/Fort Worth on flights to Hawaii and at Miami airport for passengers to Jamaica. It is in talks to expand testing to 20 Caribbean countries. As well as airport testing, there is the option of home self-tests observed by a professional on a virtual visit, with results “expected in 48 hours on average”.

Air Canada

Air Canada has ordered a sample of 25,000 rapid testing ID Now kits to be used initially on staff. Early studies showed it a viable quarantine alternative, but the airline added there was no date for passenger use. Since September 3, nearly 13,000 international arrivals have been tested at Toronto-Pearson airport, with fewer than 1% testing positive.

Dubai Airport

Dubai Airport is open to arriving and departing passengers with a printed negative PCR Covid-19 test certificate obtained within 96 hours of departure. Arrivals in Dubai may be retested and must quarantine in their accommodation until the result is known. All Emirates passengers get free Covid insurance for health and quarantine costs.

Paris Airports

Antigen tests were due to be introduced at Paris Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports by the end of October, initially on flights to the U.S. and Italy as well as for arrivals from countries on France’s high-risk list. Due to Paris curfews, anyone arriving at or leaving the airports from 9pm-6am must carry a proof of travel and a special certificate.

The Netherlands

KLM Health Services offers a €145 PCR Covid test, by appointment, at the Hague and two Schiphol sites. Results come back within 36 hours. Tests are for passengers on any airline, not just KLM. Arriving passengers must complete a health screening form. Those from the UK are currently required to quarantine for 10 days.