A handful of airports are implementing trials of quick-fire coronavirus tests, working with airlines to push technologies still being developed as a way to revive stunted international air travel.
The tests, which can be carried out in 30 minutes, are seen as the best hope for the aviation industry to overcome new travel curbs that have brought a modest traffic rebound over summer to a shuddering halt. Other initiatives include a Finnish experiment with dogs that can sniff out the virus.
Rome’s Fiumicino was first to introduce rapid screening on Sept. 16, to be followed next month by United Airlines flights from San Francisco to Hawaii, while London Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, has trialled three rival technologies. The International Air Transport Association is backing mandatory checks on departure to unlock flights before the arrival of a Covid vaccine, and Deutsche Lufthansa AG wants to use tests to reopen the trans-Atlantic market.
The aviation industry is turning to a do-it-yourself approach after earlier efforts to rally global authorities around a united plan fell flat. A recent surge in virus cases triggered a haphazard set of fresh restrictions, upending a recovery in air traffic. Now carriers are working to get pre-flight testing under way in a handful of markets in the expectation that other locations will follow.
“Testing is ready, probably governments are ready to listen, and we know that passengers are ready to be tested,” IATA Director General Alexandre de Juniac said Thursday at the World Aviation Festival. “We need the system to work and work quickly. Otherwise this industry will not survive.”
Universal checks will present logistical challenges and impact how people travel, but are vital to the removal of quarantine measures that are “killing the industry’s recovery,” he said.
The latest global traffic figures show long-haul markets are still largely grounded and that a recovery in domestic and regional operations has leveled off. Restrictions have been especially fluid in Europe, making it impossible for travelers to know whether they’ll need to self-isolate when they return home.
United Airlines Chief Executive Officer Scott Kirby said Tuesday at a Skift travel conference that “everyone agrees it’s a good idea” to have airport testing and air corridors to restart international travel, but that the industry has struggled to navigate such proposals past government bureaucracy.
United said Thursday it will launch a pilot program on the Hawaii route starting Oct. 15, adding that it’s working with officials in the state to ensure that customers who test negative can skip a 14-day quarantine requirement.
The new efforts focus on rapid antigen checks, which look for the presence of the virus’s proteins, making them quicker and cheaper but somewhat less accurate than established methods that detect its nucleic acids. The tests should be ready for deployment next month, according to De Juniac, who said all of the trade group’s airline members backed their use.
The endorsement marks a switch away from better-known polymerase chain reaction tests, which have been regarded as the gold standard for Covid testing but which are relatively ill-suited to airport use, typically taking four or five hours to identify the virus’s genetic markers in a laboratory.
Heathrow, which sought to introduce PCR tests costing 150 pounds ($191), had also proposed a second test five days later to allow for the virus’s incubation period, during which time people would need to self-isolate. Britain declined to ratify the plan, saying it was unlikely to entice travelers put off by an existing 14-day quarantine period for arrivals from at-risk countries.
The airport is now pressing the case for rapid testing before departure, though CEO John Holland-Kaye cautioned Wednesday that it will be “more challenging” for the model to gain acceptance, since destination countries would need to take the accuracy of the checks on faith.
The month-long Italian trial being conducted by Aeroporti di Roma SpA so far involves domestic-only services operated by state-owned Alitalia SpA between the capital and Milan Linate airport. Passengers on certain flights must take a rapid antigen test, with the cost covered by the Lazio regional government.
The tests require would-be travelers to be sampled with a swab, with the results available in 30 minutes. People can also board the flights if they’ve been screened the day before at a drive-in center at the airport, or if they’ve undergone a PCR check in the previous 72 hours.
Anyone found to be infected is denied boarding and will have to return home to self-isolate, having previously completed a form in which they pledged to do so in the event of a positive outcome.
AdR said it’s in talks with Lufthansa, Russia’s Aeroflot and Dubai-based Emirates about introducing the tests for their flights from Fiumicino. It’s also keen to offer the procedure for services to New York in a bid to restore a vital trans-Atlantic link that’s currently closed to all but repatriating passengers.
Lufthansa said separately Tuesday that it’s planning to buy test kits from manufacturers Abbott Laboratories — which will also be used in the United trial — and Roche Holding AG. Roche said the day before that its rapid antigen scan was available in Europe and that it would be filing for emergency authorization in the U.S. The German carrier said it’s working with partners to use the tests to open up American routes.
$10 Per Test
De Juniac said mass antigen tests would cost only about $10 once universally available and that he’d expect governments to fund them. Airport employees could carry out the screening without specialist medical training and results would be available within 15 minutes, with a 97% sensitivity, he said.
The IATA head said that the rapid tests could be deployed alongside PCR checks, which could remain available for passengers wanting to be screened ahead of travel.
Heathrow conducted field trials of three different types of rapid coronavirus test last month.
One, devised by GeneMe of Poland, can detect the virus in nose or throat swabs in about 30 minutes, while another, from U.K.-based Mologic, uses a saliva sample to identify viral antibodies in about 10 minutes.
The hub also tested the less conventional Virolens system from British startup iAbra, which deploys a digital camera and microscope to produce a highly magnified hologram-style image of a sample in just 20 seconds. That can then be scanned for the distinctly shaped virus using artificial intelligence software.
Faster even than the optical scan, Finland is deploying dogs at Helsinki airport that have been trained to home in on people carrying the virus in just 10 seconds by sniffing a skin wipe. The service is voluntary and targeted at arriving passengers.
Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. CEO Shai Weiss said in an interview that rapid testing holds out hope of a near-term revival for long-haul specialists such as his own, which usually deploys 70% of capacity across the North Atlantic.
“If we knew that there’d be a quarantine by March we might be able to hunker down, but there’s no guarantee of that,” he said. “Testing is the only way of getting aviation moving and allowing the economy to take off.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.