A travel rebound this summer in many countries may hit the air pocket as PCR tests, the so-called gold standard, will make journey too expensive for many individuals and families. European airlines are counting on a travel rebound this summer after months of Covid-19 restrictions left them struggling with minimal revenues and huge new debts taken on to survive the pandemic.
But any demand for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that can cost more than the short flights themselves threatens the recovery.
For example, PCR tests can cost around 100 pounds ($140) in Britain. The cost of PCR testing for international travel in the UK is double that of testing in other European countries, according to analysis by Abta, a leading association of travel agents and tour operators, and the Airport Operators Association.
An IATA sampling of costs for PCR tests (the test most frequently required by governments) in some 16 countries showed wide variations by markets and within markets.
Of the markets surveyed, only France complied with the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation for the state to bear the cost of testing for travellers.
Of the 15 markets where there is a cost for PCR testing to the individual, IATA found the average minimum cost for testing was $90 and the average maximum cost for testing was $208.
Even taking the average of the low-end costs, adding PCR testing to average airfares would dramatically increase the cost of flying for individuals. Pre-crisis, the average one-way airline ticket, including taxes and charges, cost $200 (2019 data).
A $90 PCR test raises the cost by 45% to $290. Add another test on arrival and the one-way cost would leap by 90% to $380. Assuming that two tests are needed in each direction, the average cost for an individual return-trip could balloon from $400 to $760.
The impact of the costs of Covid-19 testing on family travel would be even more severe. Based on average ticket prices ($200) and average low-end PCR testing ($90) twice each way, a journey for four that would have cost $1,600 pre-Covid, could nearly double to $3,040—with $1,440 being testing costs.
“As travel restrictions are lifted in domestic markets, we are seeing strong demand. The same can be expected in international markets. But that could be perilously compromised by testing costs – particularly PCR testing. Raising the cost of any product will significantly stifle demand.
“The impact will be greatest for short-haul trips (up to 1,100km), with average fares of $105, the tests will cost more than the flight. That’s not what you want to propose to travellers as we emerge from this crisis. Testing costs must be better managed. That’s critical if governments want to save tourism and transport jobs; avoid limiting travel freedoms to the wealthy,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General.
"We can’t have a situation where only the rich are able to travel. That would be a shame and a disgrace and everyone in the industry should be pushing back," Walsh said.
The restart of international travel needs to be affordable and accessible for everyone – so that people can take their much-needed overseas holidays and visit the family and friends abroad whom they’ve not been able to see for such a long time, noted Mark Tanzer, chief executive of Abta.
In Europe, airlines have called for the competition watchdog to investigate the price of Covid tests for travel, with the travel industry warning that the PCR tests required by government will in effect block most international holidays this year.
Global airline body IATA called on the UK Competition and Markets Authority to launch an inquiry, as separate research showed that travellers had to pay twice as much for PCR tests in the UK as they do in much of Europe.
The report from the government’s ‘global travel taskforce’ published recently said travel could be opened up from May 17 but that individuals would require three PCR tests to holiday even in the safest, “green-light” states – leading to immediate warnings that the cost would prohibit most people from going abroad.
Experts suggest the governments need to remove VAT on testing, wherever this has been levied, and try to give a little certainty and continuity.
Clearly, the excessive cost of PCR testing is a disincentive to the much-needed air travel recovery. To facilitate an efficient restart of international travel, Covid-19 testing must be affordable as well as timely, widely available and effective.
Therefore, governments around the world have to ensure that high costs for Covid-19 testing don’t put travel out of reach for individuals and families.