IATA Reticent on Covid Testing for Passengers

 - June 16, 2020, 11:25 AM

This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.

After taking a stridently oppositional stance to governments’ imposition of quarantines for arriving passengers to help stem the spread of Covid-19, the International Air Transport Association on Tuesday expressed reservations about mandated virus testing as well due to cost, speed, scalability, and accuracy concerns. Speaking during the association’s weekly conference call to address Covid issues affecting the airline industry, IATA medical advisor Dr. David Powell noted the “not insignificant” cost of $150 per Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test and raised concerns over the possibility of false-negative results. If, for example, the test carries a 99 percent accuracy rate, an average of three passengers out of 300 on a widebody flight who tested negative would, in fact, carry the disease, he noted.

IATA cited International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) guidance for governments to follow in reconnecting people and economies by air. Called Takeoff, the criteria do not include testing as a necessary condition for reopening borders or resuming air services. However, IATA conceded that technology for “rapid” point-of-care PCR testing could present a useful layer of protection for travelers from countries considered high risk and potentially removing more burdensome and intrusive measures such as quarantines.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) released criteria for the use of Covid-19 testing in the travel process. Should governments choose to introduce Covid-19 testing for travelers arriving from countries considered as high risk, testing must deliver results fast, be able to be conducted at scale, and achieve very high rates of accuracy. Additionally, testing must be cost-effective and not create an economic or logistical barrier to travel.

“Airlines are committed to reducing the risks of Covid-19 transmission via air travel and Covid-19 testing could play an important role,” said IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac. “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.”

Most notably, IATA has called for the availability of test results within an hour and less than 1 percent false positive and false negative test results. If, in fact, testing occurs at the airport, authorities will need to achieve a testing capacity of “several hundreds of tests” per hour. The use of saliva, rather than nasal samples, would help facilitate the capacity requirement, said IATA, as well as reduce time and improve passenger acceptance.  

As things stand, ideally governments would require testing in advance of arrival at the airport and within 24 hours of travel, said Powell. Passengers arriving “ready-to-fly” reduces the risk of contagion in the airport and enables early re-accommodation for travelers who test positive. 

“Ideally testing takes place prior to travel or at the point of departure and a positive result would mean that the passenger could not travel as planned,” said IATA in a statement. “In this case, airlines have been offering flexibility to consumers. This includes re-booking or refunds in line with the airline’s commercial policy. Many airlines are offering the same flexibility to passengers who suspect that they have symptoms consistent with Covid-19 as well as members of the same traveling party, particularly when they are members of the same household.

“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 [be] ‘punished’ with financial penalties such as fines or through operational penalties such as the withdrawal of the right to operate in the market.”

In fact, China has already introduced a mechanism that rewards airlines whose passengers all test negative for Covid-19 for three weeks in a row by allowing them to increase the number of flights to two per week. However, if the number of passengers testing positive reaches five, the CAAC will enact a weeklong suspension of the airline’s flights, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency. If the number of passengers testing positive reaches 10, then the suspension lasts four weeks.