Airport virus tests crucial to travel recovery, says aviation body

The corona test lane at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, 25 August 2020. [Photo: EPA-EFE/ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN]

Testing passengers at airports is needed to “rebuild confidence” in air travel, the head of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said on Tuesday (1 September), as the industry continues to struggle to get back anywhere near to business as usual.

According to new data for July, global air travel demand was nearly 80% lower than in July 2019, marking only a slight improvement on June, which was down 86.6%. Domestic flights, particularly in China and Russia, are standout areas of improvement.

“The crisis in demand continued with little respite in July. With essentially four in five air travellers staying home, the industry remains largely paralysed,” IATA CEO Alexandre de Juniac told reporters.

He added that “governments reopening and then closing borders or removing and then re-imposing quarantines does not give many consumers confidence to make travel plans, nor airlines to rebuild schedules.”

In the latest example of an uncoordinated response to the pandemic, Hungary decided to close its borders to EU citizens but give preferential treatment to Visegrad countries – Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The European Commission has written to the government in Budapest warning it not to discriminate between countries.

Brussels writes to Budapest over discriminatory border measures

The European Commission warned Hungary not to discriminate against EU citizens and residents after new border measures were introduced that favour tourists from the four Visegrád countries.

The IATA data showed that Europe is the only region of the world where international air travel is experiencing any kind of growth compared to the rock-bottom passenger numbers seen over the last few months of the coronavirus outbreak.

International flights within Europe recovered to 87.1% of July 2019’s numbers, “reflecting relaxation of travel restrictions in the Schengen Area”, IATA explained. Other regions such as North America, Asia and Africa all continued to hover around the 95% mark.

“This weaker performance might partly reflect passengers’ preference to travel within their country as there is still high uncertainty about developments in cross border travel,” the July analysis suggested. 

De Juniac touted coronavirus testing at airports as a way to get passengers back in the skies, insisting that it “appears to be ready for being used in travel, giving confidence both to travellers and to governments.”

The IATA head added that “the speed, accuracy and scalability of testing is rapidly improving” but admitted that the challenge of procuring enough testing resources and providing the results in good time remains a challenge.

Brussels is among a limited number of airports now offering in-situ swabs. A mobile lab will be available to passengers returning from ‘red zone’ countries and a premium service for any travellers requiring a negative test before boarding will also be available.

Health experts have cited one crucial drawback of testing at airports as the incubation period of the virus could yield a false negative result if no second test is conducted. Belgian authorities insist that travellers from high-risk areas quarantine for two weeks even after getting the all-clear upon arrival.

Airports and airlines volunteer to be EU virus safety guinea pigs

EU guidelines put together by the bloc’s aviation safety and health agencies will be trialled by seven of Europe’s airport operators and three of its airlines, as the air travel industry begins to kick back into gear following the coronavirus outbreak slump.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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