The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is clear: the application of tests to detect COVID-19 should not be a necessary aspect to resume international air operations or reopen borders.
The organization, made up of more than 290 airlines and 120 countries, is one of the main instruments of air cooperation in matters of security and operation. Precisely, together with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), it develops protocols and proposals to resume activity in the midst of the crisis caused by COVID-19.
The application of tests to detect the coronavirus is at the center of the debate on reopening international flights. Not all countries are in a position to apply them and there are sectors that fear that their mandatory nature will become a barrier to reactivate air activity.
On June 16, the ICAO published Takeoff Guidance which is the global guidance for governments to follow in reconnecting their people and economies by air. Takeoff outlines layers of measures to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission during air travel and the risk of importation of COVID-19 via air travel.
This body is proposing that the tests should preferably be applied to passengers from countries classified as “high risk”.
“Technology for rapid point-of-care Polymerized Chain Reaction (PCR) testing could be a useful layer of protection for travelers from countries considered as higher risk, potentially removing the need for more burdensome and intrusive measures such as quarantine which is a major barrier to travel and the recovery of demand,” detailed IATA.
“Airlines are committed to reducing the risks of COVID-19 transmission via air travel and COVID-19 testing could play an important role. But it must be implemented in line with ICAO’s global re-start guidance with the aim of facilitating travel. Speed, scale and accuracy are the most critical performance criteria for testing to be effectively incorporated into the travel process,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.
As part of the travel process COVID-19 testing would need to be conducted by trained public health officials and meet the following criteria:
Speed: Testing results should be delivered quickly, with results available in under an hour as the minimum standard.
Scale: If testing takes place at the airport, testing capacity of several hundreds of tests per hour must be achievable. The use of saliva for taking samples rather than nasal or throat swabs would facilitate this and would also be expected to reduce time and improve passenger acceptance.
Accuracy: Extremely high accuracy is essential. Both false-negative and false-positive results must be below 1%.
According to IATA, the tests would be necessary from before arriving at the airport and in a range of 24 hours before boarding the flight. This would reduce the risk of contagion within the air terminals and allow positive passengers to be isolated. That is, if someone is sick with the coronavirus, they would not be able to travel. The airline should assist with refunds or re-booking for the passenger.
“If testing is required as part of the travel process, it is recommended upon departure. Governments would have to mutually acknowledge the results, and data transmission should take place directly between passengers and governments, similar to how e-visa permits are currently handled. Any testing requirement must be in effect for as long as necessary. In order to guarantee this, periodic evaluations must be carried out,” said the IATA.
What happens when someone tests positive? If testing is mandated on arrival and a passenger tests positive, then the passenger should be treated according to the requirements of the receiving State.
“Airlines should not be required to repatriate the passenger(s) or ‘punished’ with financial penalties such as fines or through operational penalties such as the withdrawal of the right to operate in the market,” says IATA.
An important consideration is who should pay? Testing should facilitate travel and not provide an economic barrier. With testing at some European destinations costing in excess of $200, this is a real concern.
“The IATA supports the World Health Organization (WHO) International Health Regulations which requires governments to bear the costs of mandatory health testing. Where a test is offered on a voluntary basis, it should be charged at cost price,” said the association.
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.