“We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test.” It is in these words that on 16 March 2020 Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization, warned the world of the seriousness of COVID-19 and what he considered to be the “defining global health crisis of our time.” It seemed easy then to doubt the significance of this simple message. Over the following weeks, cities would lock down, economies would shut down, flights would be banned, borders would close.
More than six months later, past the hopes of summer and into autumn’s mist, the world is still grappling with how to manage a lingering pandemic. In particular, the movement of people remains perceived as a risk for spreading the virus – border closures and entry restrictions persist, often equating to blanket travel bans. Indeed, who would travel if only to be quarantined for two weeks upon arrival before being allowed to move around? As a result, the aviation sector who had hoped for a swift start of recovery after being almost put to a total halt for months, is struggling to bring back passengers. In this context, testing for air travel might bring some solace. While calls from airlines, airports and tourism professionals are proliferating to instore testing protocols for travel to effectively re-open borders, authorities around the world may see some value in them.
As we’ve been monitoring the various policies and measures put in place across the globe as borders closed, re-opened, and closed again throughout this crisis, five main observations on testing requirements for aviation come to light:
First, testing protocols will indeed contribute to the industry’s recover by restoring confidence in air travel. If 100% of passengers on a flight are considered to be “clean”, if individuals do not have to isolate after crossing the border, and if processes are in place in order for crew and travelers to meet testing requirements for returning flights, demand will grow again.
Second, such protocols require collaboration between operators and authorities. No single airport, airline or government can do this alone. Technological solutions exist to innovate throughout the passenger journey to meet new health related requirements. Nonetheless, these solutions need to be interoperable as so to provide the necessary guarantees to airlines – for their operations, and to passengers – for the protection of their personal (health) data. Moving away from paper-based forms to provide contact or public health related information should be a priority. Passengers should also be able to obtain and present COVID-19 test results digitally while preserving full control over their data – such results can also be integrated in industry or government mobile applications.
<p”>Third, while passengers may see some benefits in on-site facilities that can provide rapid testing results at the airport at arrival or departure, this is not an optimal solution. In-town (even at-home) advance-testing provides the least stressful and constraining process to ensure that only those individuals who can travel actually get to the airport. It also removes safety and operational concerns linked to testing positive to COVID-19 on-site. For this reason, any testing for travel protocol should take into account the capabilities of testing laboratories and work across industries to determine how best to allocate specific capacities for air travelers.
Fourth, as sophisticated as a piece of paper indicating a negative COVID-19 test result is, a minority of individuals will unfortunately try to cheat to fly – either because they did not get tested when required, or because their test came-out positive. Therefore, any testing for air travel protocol – which should include some form of digitalization of public health documentation – should rely on a robust digital ID verification solution. Only then would airlines, airports and authorities be assured that the person boarding the flight is the one who was tested and « cleared ».
Finally, the time has come for governments across the world to adopt a risk-based approach to public health in aviation. Radical decisions might have been necessary in March to limit the original spread of the virus, but there is little justification to maintaining these further even where the number case are rising again. Over the past months, testing capabilities have evolved, airlines and airports have invested in health safety equipment and have adapted their processes, and individuals have changed their behavior, further mitigating the risk of contagion while traveling.
The aviation sector may never fully recover from this pandemic. Yet, as it has always done in times of crisis, it will strive to innovate and make traveling safer to those who wish to fly. There are solutions that could help governments protect their citizens AND safely reopen their borders.
By Guillaume Xavier-Bender, Associate Director, Europe, LAM LHA