Highlighting Travel Testing and Technology Practices to Reduce COVID-19 Transmission Risk in Air Travel
The global aviation industry is being forced to venture into various safe travel initiatives to reopen travel as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers. The pandemic has led to changing trends for airlines and airports based on passenger health and safety, thus a permanent layered approach will be necessary for mitigation.
Thus, initiatives such as travel testing and technology for passenger safety and convenience must be the starting point that the overall industry needs to aim for. This is a critical step towards building a regulatory framework for cross-border travel.
NEW TESTING METHODOLOGIES
While there is pent-up demand, travelers understandably have concerns about getting on planes amid the ever-changing restrictions, and with limited vaccinations to get by. To facilitate an efficient restart of travel, including international travel, COVID-19 testing must be affordable, timely, widely available, and effective. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) highlighted that a high testing cost could halt the aviation recovery. IATA is also calling upon governments to cover the cost of the COVID-19 tests that they require for travel, in accord with the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines stipulated last summer. In a press release dated May 4, 2021, IATA chairman Willie Walsh noted that France is the lone country in the world following the WHO recommendation by providing free COVID-19 tests.
Many airlines are to scale pre-flight rapid and PCR COVID-19 testing in hopes of facilitating safe air travel and reducing quarantine periods for travelers. As a result, several independent initiatives have been launched, such as German-carrier Lufthansa offering testing services at some of its major airports since the last summer. The airline opened its first testing center in June 2020 at Frankfurt Airport with a capacity of 10,000 tests per day.
On the contrary, in December 2020, Airport Council International (ACI) vice president Michael Rossell took a stance testing for COVID-19 at airports is not the best solution. He stated, “There is both this logistical problem and an epidemiological problem that if any of these people are positive, you have just artificially constrained them all and put them all together in one space and that to us does not make sense.” This throws light on the capacity challenges of confining people in a small space for testing which could inevitably increase the exposure of a traveler.
UPGRADING INDUSTRY INFRASTRUCTURE WITH TRAVEL TESTING AND TECHNOLOGY
Airlines are implementing advance processing applications along the way which would enable them to confirm that each traveler has completed the required health checks and is, therefore, eligible to travel.
Prominent airlines are working towards experiences for travelers by using technology as the key. American Airlines and its travel restrictions tool provide the latest information on travel restrictions, what testing is required, and other documentation before the passenger makes the booking. Delta Airlines is providing similar information with its Discovery Map which gives travelers information on restrictions relevant to their destination, highlights special deals, and shows pricing based on airfare, miles, or vacation packages. Other airlines are offering flexible insurance policies, such as EasyJet with Protection Promise and Emirates with its multi-risk policy that is free and automatically added to bookings, to give travelers the confidence boost they need.
TO DO OR NOT TO DO: VACCINE PASSPORTS?
It could be physically laborious and biased to process COVID-19 related paperwork for every passenger, thus the need for digital solutions to arm the airport and airline staff and facilitate smooth travel could be the way forward. The IATA Travel Pass is among the most prominent health pass solutions competing in the marketplace. Airlines are thus advancing into the trials of various digital health passes, that will hold a traveler’s record of a COVID-19 PCR test or vaccination administered in another country.
IATA also highlighted the risk involved if governments don’t act swiftly to adopt digital processes to manage travel health credentials. “Without an automated solution for COVID-19 checks, we can see the potential for significant airport disruptions on the horizon. Already, average passenger processing and waiting times have doubled from what they were pre-crisis during peak time – reaching an unacceptable three hours. And that is with many airports deploying pre-crisis level staffing for a small fraction of pre-crisis volumes,” says IATA’s Walsh in a recent statement.
The airline industry is not far away from the reality that, beyond aircraft cleaning efforts, mask requirements, and health passport development, consumers won’t fly in large numbers until they feel the risk is diminished to some extent. This could be possible with increasing numbers of fully inoculated travelers, destinations maintaining strict arrival protocols by encouraging only vaccinated travelers, to begin with. At the same time, the collective industry needs to develop globally recognized, standardized, and interoperable digital solutions to verify COVID-19 testing and vaccine certificates. As airlines are in a move to boost traffic and revenue during the recovery period, the way ahead should be the one inculcating air travel testing and technology.