New British Airways Boss Pleads for Pre-departure Covid Tests

 - October 19, 2020, 12:20 PM

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

Newly-appointed British Airways CEO Sean Doyle is urging the UK government to abandon its quarantine requirements and replace the system with preflight coronavirus testing to “get the economy moving again.”  Speaking at the virtual "Airlines 2050: Beyond the Crisis" event on Monday, Doyle warned of a “risk as an industry we will not see beyond this crisis if we do not first address the issue of how we get people flying again; everything else is for another day.” The UK’s rule that requires passengers arriving in England from countries not on its so-called safe travel corridor list to self-isolate for two weeks has proved detrimental to demand, leaving groups such as the International Air Transport Association calling for states to urgently act to establish harmonized testing protocols.  “We do not believe that quarantine is the solution,” Doyle said. “We believe the best way to reassure people is to introduce a reliable and affordable test before flying.”

Doyle described the Covid-19 antigen tests as “fast and affordable,” though noted that authorities would have to determine the most appropriate kind of test.

London, however, does not seem compelled to move to a preflight testing regime for international arrivals in the short-term. Transport secretary Grant Shapps confirmed the government is considering introducing a “test-and-release” scheme that would see passengers take a PCR test about a week after arriving in the country and allow them to leave quarantine on the eighth day of their self-isolation in the event of a negative test. The Global Travel Taskforce is analyzing how to implement the system and will report to prime minister Boris Johnson in early November, according to Shapps. Passengers would have to take the PCR test at their expense—at about £150 each—and private labs would do the testing to avoid overloading the public health system. Shapps said he is “extremely hopeful” the government could implement the testing regime in December but cautioned this will depend on the industry's ability to provide the testing capacity.

While the domestic testing scheme could take effect before year-end, an international test regime based on ICAO standards and possibly including preflight testing or some self-isolation will take longer, the transport secretary admitted. A timeline for agreeing on a bilateral or multilateral testing regime is difficult to predict due to the nature of international cooperation, Shapps noted. “We will play a leading role,” he vowed. “We’re talking to U.S. Homeland Security and others. We’d like to get trials set up. That could involve a series of tests that could involve quarantine before and after flights, or ultimately no quarantine at all if the technology is there for rapid tests.”

Airlines UK chief executive Tim Alderslade expressed skepticism the anticipated new regime would stimulate demand. “A test seven days after arrival, plus one or two days to get the results or five days in a worst-case scenario, will not have the impact we need,” he said. “If you look at the average number of days people stay in the UK, from the U.S. it’s about four days. It’s of no use.”