The International Air Transport Association (Iata) on Tuesday called for "systematic" Covid-19 testing of all passengers at airports before departure to replace the quarantine measures that are "killing the aviation industry".
Alexandre de Juniac, director-general of Iata, said pre-departure testing should enable governments to safely open borders without quarantine.
"And it will provide passengers with the certainty that they can travel without having to worry about a last-minute change in government rules that could spoil their plans."
Iata chief said quarantines erected by various governments around the world are "killing the aviation industry" by thwarting airline efforts to recover from the pandemic. However, testing all passengers before they travel should allow governments to completely end the practice and enable the re-starting of the aviation industry that has suffered billions of dollars in losses as well as millions of jobs lost, the Iata chief said.
He said Iata "did not come to this decision lightly."
"The integration of systematic testing into the travel process will present logistical challenges and impact how people travel," de Juniac said during a conference call with media.
To enable the integration of systematic testing into the travel process, testing manufacturers need to develop a test that can be deployed "that is fast, accurate, scalable, affordable, and easy to operate. And it will need governments to agree on common standards so that tests administered in the departure country are accepted upon arrival."
De Juniac said 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.
"We don't see any alternative solution that would be less challenging or more effective."
With rapid antigen tests becoming available for as little as $7 each, airlines will push for their use to be endorsed by International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the UN agency that oversees global aviation rules, he said and urged governments to bear testing costs. Iata is in discussions with various governments.
A global agreement is needed to ensure test results on departure are accepted on arrival, he added. "It will also boost passenger confidence that everybody on the aircraft has been tested."
Antigen tests are faster but generally more likely to miss positive cases of the virus than laboratory-based molecular diagnostic tests, he said.
German diagnostics specialist Qiagen said earlier this month it planned to launch a Covid antigen test that provided results in 15 minutes and could be deployed in airports or stadiums.
De Juniac said surveys have shown that testing of all travellers will be accepted by the travelling public.
"The majority of respondents agreed they are willing to undergo testing as part of the travel process and that universal testing will boost passenger confidence by knowing everyone has been tested."
"It's a risk to test thousands of people in the airports, but we had the same issue with security and we managed that successfully." He said any testing system must be temporary and must be dismantled once the pandemic has passed.
De Juniac said air travel markets continue to suffer disproportionately from the pandemic and, overall, recovery has not happened as fast or to the extent that Iata had expected earlier in the year.
Quarantines hit aviation
According to most recent surveys cited by Iata, the reason for slow recovery is the quarantine measure, which more than 80 per cent of prospective passengers say discourage them from travelling. The situation has led several airlines recently to announce further capacity cuts for the winter season, a reflection of the slower-than-expected pace of recovery.
Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at London's StrategicAero Research, said the inherent problem with the proposal for antigen tests is its accuracy.
"Without that, airlines could well be transporting passengers who may or may not know that they are carrying the Covid-19 virus and end up spreading it wherever they are travelling to.
"Even with such airport testing that can provide results in approximately 15mins, how many more delays and earlier arrival at airports around will there have to be? How will social distancing be catered for if people arrive enmasse, several hours before departure? Its not a realistic proposition given the ease and ferocity with which Covid-19 spreads," he said.
"While the proposals required international consensus, the bigger challenge is countries employing their own restrictive rules on arrivals and departures - so called 'air bubble' travel arrangements between two nations. These often change at the drop of a hat and force people to have to quarantine - so what then, is the point of a flawed antigen test if that's the end result for a passenger (and their families)?" he added.
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