Onerous hit by virus, airways push for checks over quarantines

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) – What does it take to get people flying again? International air travel has fallen 92% this year as travelers worry about COVID-19 and government travel bans and quarantine rules make planning difficult. One thing that airlines believe could help is to quickly scan all passengers for viruses before departure.

Sporadic experiments to improve security are being conducted around the world, and a UN organization is holding discussions to establish guidelines. Much is at stake. With no end to the pandemic in sight, the near complete cessation of international travel will hamper economies as they seek to recover from the recession and return to normal business levels. Millions of jobs – at airlines, airports, and travel-related businesses such as hotels and restaurants – are affected.

Here are some of the most important topics.

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Why is the emphasis on testing?

A major factor preventing people from taking long-haul flights is fear of sitting next to someone with COVID-19, according to a survey by the International Air Transport Association. While flying initially helped spread the virus around the world, aircraft have not yet been shown to be super-spreader locations themselves, as was the case with business conferences and meat packers.

Most people are also reluctant to fly into quarantine, which restricts their activities for up to two weeks after they arrive. Quarantines by themselves are not perfect for preventing the virus from spreading as in some cases they are not strictly enforced.

“By testing all passengers, people regain the freedom to travel with confidence. And that will get millions of people back to work, ”says Alexandre de Juniac, Director General and CEO of IATA.

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HOW WOULD TESTING WORK?

Initial trials focus on testing passengers either at the airport or remotely before departure. Information on the test result can be documented via a smartphone app. Newer tests can produce results in less than an hour.

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WHAT DO HEALTH AUTHORITIES SAY?

You are open to the idea but still rate how effective it would be.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control noted that testing technology, capacity, and access to testing were improving. It added that “international efforts are currently underway to assess risk reduction, determine what a viable test regime for air travel might look like, and achieve some consensus on standards for a harmonized approach to global air traffic testing.”

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Who will decide that?

The IATA requires fast, accurate and scalable tests for all passengers. After airline executives sought help from the European Union and the White House COVID-19 Task Force, the issue appears to have shifted to a United Nations forum, the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization.

The ICAO is working on guidelines based on scientific recommendations that countries could use in establishing test systems. The subject is on the agenda for a meeting on October 29th, but this is no guarantee that the guidelines will be approved.

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WHICH TRIALS ARE ON THE ROAD?

Different test forms were tried out in different locations for weeks. What airlines want is a bigger international approach.

For example, China needs a time consuming negative polymerase chain reaction test before departure. At Frankfurt International Airport, diagnostics company Centogene offers non-symptomatic individuals tests for 59 euros (69 US dollars) for a result within 12 hours and 139 euros for six hours. A doctor’s certificate – for an additional 25 euros – can help avoid quarantine restrictions.

The Switzerland-based Commons Project Foundation and the World Economic Forum are conducting trials this month for CommonPass, a digital health passport that travelers can use to securely document compliance with the COVID-19 test requirements via a QR code on their smartphone or on paper. The idea is to work around the problems that arise from printed test results that may come from unfamiliar labs or in a language that the examiners do not know.

Cathay Pacific has tested CommonPass with volunteers on a flight from Hong Kong to Singapore and United Airlines will test it between London Heathrow and Newark Liberty International. CDC’s Martin S. Cetron, director of global migration and quarantine, says he is “eager to learn from the trials” and that CommonPass “could be one of the many potential tools.” CommonPass could be adopted by individual countries without waiting for international agreements.

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WHY THE DELAY?

Each test regime contains many moving parts. First, the test must be accurate, fast, and inexpensive enough to be made available on a large scale. Governments must agree to accept the results. While the governments are represented in the ICAO, the guidelines of the organization are not binding. There must be a way to certify the result while protecting the privacy of passengers’ medical information, as well as a procedure for dealing with people who have tested positive.

Scientists warn that there are concerns about the accuracy of some rapid tests. People can test negative for a few days after being infected. People can be contagious before they show symptoms, and these people can test negative too.

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ARE YOU CHECKING THE ONLY SOLUTION?

The International Air Transport Association advocates a multi-layered approach. In addition to testing, this means: social distancing at the airport, contactless check-in, wearing masks in flight and limiting passenger movement in the cabin.

In a survey published in May, consulting firm McKinsey asked 40 business travel planners what would give them the confidence to book trips. 75 percent said they would want a vaccine, while 39 percent said tests. According to McKinsey, business travel spending exceeded $ 1.4 trillion, or 21% of the global travel and hospitality sector, in 2018. Business travelers make up 55% to 75% of the bottom line on top airlines – although they make up less than 10% of passengers.

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David Koenig in Dallas, Texas and Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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