The global aviation sector needs pre-flight testing, and it needs it now.
That’s the message from IATA – the global industry regulator now calling for systematic Covid-19 testing of all international passengers before departure as a key part of efforts to restart aviation during the coronavirus pandemic.
Rapid and affordable antigen tests that can be administered by non-medical staff are expected to become available in the “coming weeks” and should be rolled out under globally agreed standards, IATA’s CEO Alexandre de Juniac reiterated.
With rapid antigen tests becoming available for as little as $7 each, De Juniac said, airlines will push for their use to be endorsed by International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the UN agency that oversees global aviation rules.
Production could be quickly increased to millions per day and the tests phased in between late October and the end of the year.
Last-minute airport screening is more effective because it “seals off the system” against forged certificates or infections contracted just before travel, De Juniac said on Tuesday.
Antigen tests are faster but less sensitive and therefore slightly more likely to miss positive cases than the PCR alternatives, although the accuracy gap has narrowed over the last few months.
Among companies marketing the new tests, German diagnostics specialist Qiagen said earlier this month it planned to launch a Covid-19 antigen test that provided results in 15 minutes and could be deployed in airports.
Pre-flight testing trials are now under way in Italy.
Two flights per day between Rome and Milan Linate, operated by Alitalia, only have passengers onboard who have undergone a rapid antigen test prior to departure.
Fiumicino was one of the first airports in Italy to set up an onsite testing centre.
Passengers flying from Rome Fiumicino airport are advised to arrive at least an hour and a half before their flight.
They’re instructed to go directly from the departures area to a testing centre in Terminal 3 where they will be given a nasal swab that can reveal within 30 minutes whether or not they have the coronavirus Covid-19.
They must wait in the testing centre for the results: if it's negative they can proceed to the gate; if it's positive they'll be put in isolation, given a molecular (PCR) swab test to confirm the result and if necessary, instructed on quarantine procedures.
Antigen tests look for pieces of proteins that make up the Sars- CoV-2 virus to determine if the person has an active infection.
In most cases, a nasal or throat swab is taken by a healthcare provider and tested.
A positive antigen test means that the person being tested has an active Covid-19 infection.
It can be used to quickly determine who has an active infection, can help identify people who are contagious to others, and is a less expensive test than PCR.
Airline leaders continue to view Covid19 testing as one of the few strategic options that has the ability reduce further damage to the already suffering global air travel sector.
IAG Group CEO Willie Walsh (IAG airlines: British Airways, Iberia, Vueling, Aer Lingus and Level) and United Airlines are among the carriers that have signed a letter to US and European Union leaders. “Given the unquestioned importance of trans-Atlantic air travel to the global economy as well as to the economic recovery of our businesses, we believe it is critical to find a way to re-open air services between the US and Europe,” the letter said.
It was sent to US Vice President Mike Pence and Ylva Johansson, the European commissioner for home affairs.
“We recognise that testing presents a number of challenges; however we believe that a pilot testing programme for the transatlantic market could be an excellent opportunity for government and industry to work together,” the letter added.
The EU doesn’t currently allow visits from US residents, although it has relaxed rules for non-essential travel from 15 countries with lower coronavirus infection rates.
The UK requires people arriving from the US to spend 14 days in self-imposed quarantine, while the US restricts travel by most passengers coming for Europe.
US airlines reported a second-quarter after-tax net loss of $11bn, double their collective $5.2bn loss in the first quarter, according to government figures released last on Monday.
The back-to-back quarterly declines follow 27 straight quarters of after-tax net profits running back to 2013, the data from the Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics showed.
Last weekend, Kenya Airways chief executive told an international news channel that the national carrier urgently requires $500mn to continue to battle the pandemic that has eroded its half year earnings by over 50%. Airlines are continuing to shrink in order to survive as the pandemic continues.
Singapore Airlines Group said it is cutting about 4,300 positions across its three airlines – SIA, SilkAir and Scoot – the largest wave of redundancies, 17 years after SIA laid off hundreds of employees during the 2003 Sars crisis when the airline suffered operating losses for the first time in its history.
Guillaume Faury, Airbus CEO, warned that his company’s “life as a business is at risk” because of coronavirus.
Airbus has already announced it is cutting 15,000 of its staff — more than 10% of the global workforce — as demand for new jets remains almost non-existent.
Airbus had previously said it hoped to avoid compulsory redundancies, but these might now be necessary, Faury explained to European radio RTL, ahead of negotiations with unions in France and Germany. “The crisis is existential.
Our life as a business is potentially at risk if we don’t take the right measures.
We are taking them. “The situation is so serious, and we are faced with so much uncertainty, that I think no one can guarantee there won’t be compulsory redundancies if we’re to adapt to the situation, especially if it evolves further.
“On the other hand, what I say clearly is that we have a lot of work to do, we will do everything we can to avoid arriving at that point.
There are lots of measures we can take between voluntary redundancies and compulsory redundancies.”
* The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir