Air travelers wearing masks walk through departures hall of Suvarnabhumi Airport.

Airlines urge pre-flight COVID testing deployment as outlook dims

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Facing an anemic outlook for international air travel recovery, a leading airline trade group is calling on governments to develop and deploy “rapid, accurate, affordable, easy-to-operate, scalable and systematic” COVID-19 testing for all passengers before departure as an alternative to quarantine measures.

While some governments have cautiously re-opened borders since the start of the global pandemic, there has been limited passenger uptake either because quarantine measures make travel impractical or the frequent changes in COVID-19 measures make planning impossible, notes the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

“The key to restoring the freedom of mobility across borders is systematic COVID-19 testing of all travelers before departure,” declares IATA Director General and CEO Alexandre de Juniac. “This will give governments the confidence to open their borders without complicated risk models that see constant changes in the rules imposed on travel. Testing all passengers will give people back their freedom to travel with confidence. And that will put millions of people back to work.”

IATA’s own public opinion research reveals strong support for COVID-19 testing in the travel process. A total of 4,700 interviews were conducted online in late August in 11 markets (Australia, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, India, Japan, Singapore, UAE, UK and the United States).

“Some 65% of travelers surveyed agreed that quarantine should not be required if a person tests negative for COVID-19,” states IATA.

Lufthansa is among the airlines that support the expansion of coronavirus testing, saying in a statement it considers such expansion prior to departure “an essential prerequisite” for the resumption of global mobility.

“Consistent testing is possible, increases safety for travelers and is a better alternative than changing inconsistent entry and quarantine regulations,” says the airline.

COVID-19 testing before departure is indeed the preferred option, explains IATA, as it will create a “clean” environment throughout the travel process, whereas testing on arrival dents passenger confidence given the potential for quarantine at the destination in the event of a positive result.

Some operators are not waiting for government assist to begin testing passengers. For instance, Finnair is cooperating with private Finnish healthcare service company Terveystalo to offer its customers fast access to coronavirus testing prior to travel from 28 September.

Under the program, Finnair customers are directed to Terveystalo’s digital service through Finnair’s website. They can then choose their closest Terveystalo clinic for testing from a wide network across Finland. The test and results are scheduled in a way that fulfills the destination requirements, says the airline.

But in IATA’s view, a scalable solution is clearly required. The association wants a test that meets the criteria of speed, accuracy, affordability and ease of use, and which can be administered systematically under the authority of governments following agreed international standards. It says it is pursuing this position through the International Civil Aviation Organization, which is leading efforts to develop and implement global standards for the safe operation of international air services.

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Meanwhile, the outlook for international air traffic has significantly worsened for the likes of Lufthansa in recent weeks, as the summer travel season comes to an end.

Underscoring the deeply challenging operating environment, Lufthansa Group’s Executive Board has adopted a series of new resolutions, including grounding more jumbo jets.

After six Airbus A380s were taken out of service in the spring, Lufthansa’s remaining eight A380s and ten A340-600s will be transferred to long-term storage and removed from planning. “These aircraft will only be reactivated in the event of an unexpectedly rapid market recovery. In addition, the remaining seven Airbus A340-600s will be permanently decommissioned,” says Lufthansa.

Broadly, the Group currently foresees “a permanent, Group-wide capacity reduction of 150 aircraft by the middle of this decade” inclusive of wet-leased aircraft. Changes to personnel numbers and compensation will be discussed with the relevant employee representatives, it says. And a 20% reduction of management positions is to be implemented in the first quarter of 2021.

“By calling for the establishment of a global approach to COVID-19 testing for all passengers before departure we are sending a clear signal of aviation’s needs,” says IATA’s de Juniac in a statement.

The association does not believe COVID-19 testing will become a permanent fixture in the air travel experience, but says it will likely be needed into the medium-term for air travel to re-establish itself.

“Many see the development of a vaccine as the panacea for the pandemic. It will certainly be an important step, but even after an effective vaccine is globally recognized, ramping up production and distribution is likely to take many months. Testing will be a much-needed interim solution,” adds de Juniac.

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