Airports are starting to open on-site coronavirus testing in a bid to usurp lengthy quarantines; London’s Heathrow was the latest big airport to bring in preflight testing this week.
But if testing does persuade governments to loosen the rules and gets people back in airplane seats, there are doubts whether any on-site testing regime would be able to cope with a rebound in passenger numbers.
“It’s not such a problem at the moment because the volumes are very low. But we would reach a stage where you just can’t test every passenger at the airport,” said Olivier Jankovec, director general of airport lobby ACI Europe.
Heathrow announced Tuesday that it would start a pre-travel testing scheme, months after its swanky new test center was opened (and which has stayed empty since then). The £80 tests were made available to people flying to Hong Kong.
It was also supposed to be used by people flying to Rome, but a last-minute snag prevented that from happening, as there were doubts whether Italy would accept the tests conducted at Heathrow called Lamp (Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification). Those tests are fast, taking about an hour, but not as accurate as ones sent off to labs.
Heathrow is also thinking of bringing in antigen tests, which are more widely accepted by arrival countries.
French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said last week that such tests would be in place at French airports by the end of the month and prioritized for travelers going to countries that require negative COVID results.
Other airports have already set up dedicated testing facilities. In the case of Brussels, it’s seeing wider demand by the general public as the country plunges into a second wave of the pandemic.
The testing center at Brussels Zaventem has been operational for the last month, and travelers typically receive a result within nine hours, or opt for a rapid test if they are flying to an area that requires a negative COVID result on arrival.
During those four weeks, more than 7,000 passengers used the center. But that’s a tiny fraction of the passenger load expected if travel ever returns to more normal levels; in October 2019, the airport saw more than 2 million passengers pass through its doors.
It’s a problem across the Continent.
Early in the pandemic, Iceland gained plaudits for its model — even though, as a wealthy island, the country has geographic and economic advantages unavailable to other states. Travelers reported receiving a COVID test result by text five hours after arrival, leaving them free to explore the country.
But by mid-August, Iceland had updated its policy, introducing a five-day quarantine and a second test for travelers as a further precaution. The government also brought in a small charge for the airport test.
Several Italian airports have had COVID testing in place since the summer. But Italian reports say the drive-in center at Rome’s Fiumicino airport has been hit with queues of up to 12 hours as it’s also used for wider community testing. And this is with air traffic at an unprecedented low.
More creatively, Helsinki airport is turning to dogs instead of swabs. It’s running a sniffer dog trial; early results show very high accuracy in detecting wipes with traces of the virus. However, because it’s a trial, people still have to take a conventional test.
Sari Multala, an MP and council member from the city of Vantaa, which manages the trial, wrote on social media that ramping up the trial would need “more money for testing and training and a legal change, if the dogs are used as working dogs.”
Those kinds of teething problems are prompting the aviation sector to demand that governments do more than just set up airport testing centers. Airlines and the International Air Transport Association called for an international preflight testing regime — one that could remove airports from the testing procedure altogether.
Luis Felipe de Oliveira, head of Airports Council International, wants “urgent government action to introduce widespread and coordinated testing of passengers to enable quarantine requirements to be removed. Without this action, it is not an exaggeration that the industry is facing collapse.”