Coronavirus: Hong Kong’s screening system for airport arrivals holds lessons for travel industry in post-pandemic world
The city’s government has turned the airport into its first line of defense in the battle against Covid-19.
The monitoring regime would stay in place at least for now, a health official said on Tuesday. “The test that Hong Kong has adopted, I believe it has to stay for a while,” said Dr Wong Ka-hing, controller of the city’s Centre for Health Protection. “I don’t think we can easily do away with the testing in the near future.”
Hong Kong’s programme is being closely watched as the airline industry’s body prepares to meet health, civil aviation and airport authorities in the coming weeks. The International Air Transport Association recognizes that such comprehensive screening will become the new normal to ensure the virus does not resurface as global air travel resumes once the pandemic is brought under control.
“It is clear the health control conditions of passengers will be a key element to restart our industry,” association chief Alexandre de Juniac said. “What we are advocating for is having similar measures all over the world, to avoid a patchwork of complex measures in different parts of the world.”
Future measures could have wide implications on how people travel. The airline industry sees Covid-19 tests and temperature readings as a preflight check possibility. Sanitising gel, masks and social distancing once on board will also be explored.
Hong Kong offers a rare example of how a government can carry out mass coronavirus screening at a makeshift off-site testing centre. Travellers are sent to AsiaWorld-Expo near the airport directly upon arrival and must wait there for up to 12 hours for their results to be processed. But few airports are lucky to have similar set-ups.
Health officials admit they can handle only one plane of passengers at a time, given the necessary physical distancing among people.
“There is a question of capacity,” said Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the centre’s communicable disease branch. “We can only handle 400 people a day for better quarantine control. If we ask all passengers [after the pandemic] to do this, they would have to wait for hours for the test result and they may not be able to get the result for the same day, so it is a challenge.”
The current screening volume is a far cry from the 200,000 passengers who normally use the airport each day. The health officials could not say whether testing all arrivals would be part of the strategy opening up air travel, or if the number could be scaled up. Testing has been problematic in Britain and the United States, with both struggling to handle the numbers.
“There are a lot of practical and logistical measures that we have tried to figure out and that need to be discussed and presented during this summit to civil aviation authorities, airport and health authorities to see if they are safe and secure,” de Juniac said.
South Korea has done the same thing.
Seoul Incheon, another major Asian airport, set up a makeshift open-air testing centre outside its passenger terminal to screen up to 2,000 arrivals from Europe a day.
According to the Airports Council International Asia-Pacific, current testing has proved tricky and future measures could increase the travel time through the airport and make transiting for passengers more complex.
“The reasons why on-site testing is challenging are space and facility constraints and insufficient testing kits in many countries,” a spokeswoman for the airports body said.
Heathrow Airport in London, one of the busiest in the world, said it expected air travel volume to drop by 90 per cent. It was working with the government and British industries to develop rapid health screening for passengers before they board.
Monty Brewer, a former chief executive of Air Canada, said on a recent FlightGlobal webcast that a renewed sense of safety for flying would be needed to bring passengers back to air travel.
“How do we make sure that the customer feels comfortable that the person they are travelling with is a safe person to travel with, had the disease and no longer carries it, or if they had a vaccine. If you can solve that one, it could speed up the growth of travel,” Brewer said.
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.