By Alex Macheras
The global air travel sector is facing its largest crisis in the history of the concept of flight. The industry, which was booming just ten months ago – is continuing to grapple with the economic and social impacts of this ongoing pandemic. For the majority of the world’s countries, borders remain closed. International flight schedules have been slashed. Mass redundancies are continuing across the aviation sector. It’s an unprecedented time, and recovery is not yet on the horizon.
The current goal is clear: to ensure that Covid-19 and air travel can, as safely as possible, coexist in a world so accustomed to flying, a world that’s reliant on flight for more than just using it as transportation to a holiday destination.
But for many countries, the risk of importing Covid-19 cases from elsewhere outweighs the losses incurred from a closed border policy. This is especially true for countries like Qatar, which has had relative success in controlling the spread of the virus within the population thus far. Ultimately, the last thing any government wants to do is jeopardise the pandemic's progress by opening the flood gates to the rest of the world. As you can imagine, for airlines, these population protection policies are a nightmare.
Testing passengers for Covid-19 remains one of the few strategic options available to airlines, but only if it’s rapid, reliable, as non-invasive as possible, and widespread. A ‘sterile flight’ is the ultimate goal, whereby all passengers have tested negative for Covid-19 within hours of boarding the aircraft by undergoing a fast, quick test (either a saliva swab, or a spit test, etc).
Two weeks ago, IATA released the following promising statement: “Rapid and affordable antigen tests that can be administered by non-medical staff are expected to become available in coming weeks and should be rolled out under globally agreed standards” – a hopeful message for a fragile industry, but with very few details.
Fast forward to earlier this week, and in an exclusive one-to-one interview I hosted at the World Affairs Councils of America CEO Forum with HE Mr Akbar al-Baker, Group chief executive of Qatar Airways revealed the following:
“There are major advances in testing, which is good news for us as an airline, and also good news for countries because they will be able to test people quickly. I can reveal that Qatar Airways is already one of the first airlines that has placed a huge order for the rapid tests, which is now available. Roche is one of the pharmaceuticals companies that has brought this rapid test [to the market], and we will start testing our passengers, a lot of them – hundreds of thousands of them, starting from the middle of this month.
We want to be at the forefront of giving comfort to our passengers, that when they travel with Qatar Airways – they are in safe hands” – al-Baker told me.
The national carrier will become one of the first in the world to introduce rapid antigen testing with results ready in 15 minutes, it will be the most significant step forward for air travel since the World Health Organisation declared the ‘pandemic’ in mid-March. Last-minute airport testing is more effective because it seals off the system against forged certificates or infections contracted just before travel and has the ability to push down the Covid-19 risk harder than any other measure implemented so far. Passengers could arrive at the airport, undergo a rapid test, check-in, and providing the result was negative – proceed airside, ready to fly. Scientists have proven the risk of contracting Covid-19 on an aircraft remains very low, therefore rapid testing has the potential to almost eliminate the risk to passengers, and (hopefully) restore passenger confidence.
Antigen tests are faster but less sensitive and, therefore, are slightly more likely to miss positive cases than the regular PCR swab test alternatives, but the good news is the accuracy gap has narrowed over the last few months following significant progress with the manufacturing of tests, and Roche (one of the companies bringing a rapid test to the market) says its rapid antigen now has a sensitivity of 96.52% and a specificity of 99.68%, based on 400+ samples from two independent studies.
Al Baker agreed that for this to have maximum effect, there must be a global standard to ensure rapid testing is widely deployed, recognised, and adopted. If so, it could become just another checkpoint of the airport that we – as passengers – eventually get used to such as the 100-ml liquid rule, and secondary security screening for destinations like the United States.
If there’s one certainty in a sky now overcast with uncertainty, it’s that while the recovery of aviation will be slow, turbulent and uneven for the entire global sector as a whole, governments have the ability to determine just how quickly recovery of the sector can resume if they outline and implement a ‘new normal’ for air travel focused on rapid testing which will be rolled out at Doha’s Hamad International Airport over the coming weeks.
* The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir