Airports deploy 30-minute virus tests to unlock travel

By CHRISTOPHER JASPER & RICHARD WEISS

A HANDFUL of European airports are implementing trials of quick-fire coronavirus tests, working with airlines to push technologies still being developed as a way to revive stunted international air travel.

The tests, which can be carried out in 30 minutes, are seen as the best hope for the aviation industry to overcome new travel curbs that have brought a modest traffic rebound over summer to a shuddering halt. Other initiatives include a Finnish experiment with dogs that can sniff out the virus.

Rome’s Fiumicino hub became the first worldwide to introduce the rapid screening, while London Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, has trialled three rival technologies. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is backing mandatory checks on departure to unlock flights before the arrival of a Covid-19 vaccine and Deutsche Lufthansa AG wants to use tests to reopen the trans- Atlantic market.

The aviation industry is turning to a do-it-yourself approach after earlier efforts to rally global authorities around a united plan fell flat. A recent surge in virus cases triggered a haphazard set of fresh restrictions, upending a recovery in air traffic. Now carriers are working to get pre-flight testing underway in a handful of markets in the expectation that other locations will follow.

“Testing is ready, probably governments are ready to listen, and we know that passengers are ready to be tested,” IATA DG Alexandre de Juniac said yesterday at the World Aviation Festival. “We need the system to work and work quickly. Otherwise, this industry will not survive.”

Universal checks will present logistical challenges and impact how people travel but are vital to the removal of quarantine measures that are “killing the industry’s recovery,” he said.

The latest global traffic figures show long-haul markets are still largely grounded and a recovery in domestic and regional operations has levelled off. Restrictions have been especially fluid in Europe, making it impossible for travellers to know whether they’ll need to self-isolate when they return home.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said on Tuesday at a Skift travel conference that “everyone agrees it’s a good idea” to have airport testing and air corridors to restart international travel, but that the industry has struggled to navigate such proposals past government bureaucracy.

The new efforts focus on rapid antigen checks, which look for the presence of the virus’ proteins, making them quicker and cheaper but somewhat less accurate than established methods that detect its nucleic acids. The tests should be ready for deployment next month, according to De Juniac, who said all of the trade group’s airline members backed their use.

The endorsement marks a switch away from better-known polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which have been regarded as the gold standard for Covid-19 testing but which are relatively ill-suited to airport use, typically taking four or five hours to identify the virus’s genetic markers in a laboratory.

Heathrow, which sought to introduce PCR tests costing £150 (RM795), had also proposed a second test five days later to allow for the virus’ incubation period, during which time people would need to self-isolate. Britain declined to ratify the plan, saying it was unlikely to entice travellers put off by an existing 14-day quarantine period for arrivals from at-risk countries.

The month-long Italian trial being conducted by Aeroporti di Roma SpA so far involves domestic-only services operated by state-owned Alitalia SpA between the capital and Milan Linate airport. Passengers on certain flights must take a rapid antigen test, with the cost covered by the Lazio regional government.

The tests require would-be travellers to be sampled with a swab, with the results available in 30 minutes. People can also board the flights if they’ve been screened the day before at a drive-in centre at the airport, or if they’ve undergone a PCR check in the previous 72 hours.

Anyone found to be infected is denied boarding and will have to return home to self-isolate, having previously completed a form in which they pledged to do so in the event of a positive outcome. — Bloomberg