The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has called for the development and deployment of rapid, accurate, affordable, easy-to-operate, scalable and systematic COVID-19 testing for all passengers before departure as an alternative to quarantine measures in order to re-establish global air connectivity. IATA says it will work through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and with health authorities to implement this solution quickly.
International travel is 92% down on 2019 levels. Over half a year has passed since global connectivity was destroyed as countries closed their borders to fight COVID-19. Some governments have cautiously re-opened borders since then, but there has been limited uptake because either quarantine measures make travel impractical or the frequent changes in COVID-19 measures make planning impossible.
“The key to restoring the freedom of mobility across borders is systematic COVID-19 testing of all travelers before departure. 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,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.
IATA’s public opinion research revealed strong support for COVID-19 testing in the travel process. Some 65% of travelers surveyed agreed that quarantine should not be required if a person tests negative for COVID-19. 84% agreed that testing should be required of all travelers, and 88% agreed that they are willing to undergo testing as part of the travel process.
In addition to opening borders, public opinion research also indicated that testing will help to rebuild passenger confidence in aviation. Survey respondents identified the implementation of COVID-19 screening measures for all passengers as effective in making them feel safe, second only to mask-wearing. And, the availability of rapid COVID-19 testing is among the top three signals that travelers will look to for reassurance that travel is safe (along with the availability of a vaccine or a treatment for COVID-19).
IATA’s call is to develop a test that meets the criteria of speed, accuracy, affordability and ease of use and that could be administered systematically under the authority of governments following agreed international standards.
The evolution of COVID-19 testing is progressing rapidly on all parameters—speed, accuracy, affordability, ease of use and scalability. IATA expects solutions to be ready to deploy in the coming weeks.
COVID-19 testing before departure is the preferred option as it will create a “clean” environment throughout the travel process. Testing on arrival dents passenger confidence with the potential for quarantine at destination in the event of a positive result.
There will be many practical challenges to integrating testing into the travel process establishing the protocols to safely manage large-scale testing across all industry stakeholders. “The ICAO process is critical to aligning governments to a single global standard that can be efficiently implemented and globally recognized. Airlines, airports, equipment manufacturers and governments will then need to work in total alignment so that we can get this done quickly. Each day that the industry is grounded risks more job losses and economic hardship,” said de Juniac.
IATA does not see COVID-19 testing becoming a permanent fixture in the air travel experience, but 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,” said de Juniac.
Air transport is not the only sector with a critical need for testing. “The needs of medical personnel must be the first priority. And we recognize that educational institutions and workplaces will also be vying for effective mass testing capabilities,” said de Juniac.