IATA calls for mandatory COVID test before departure to restart international flights

Director general says quarantines are ‘killing the aviation industry'

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Some airlines like Emirates are testing passengers before departure
Some airlines like Emirates are testing passengers before departure. (PHOTO: Emirates)

Use this oneThe International Air Transport Association (IATA) called Tuesday (22 September) for universal “systematic” COVID-19 testing of all passengers before departure as a way to re-start the aviation industry that has suffered billions of dollars in losses as well as millions of jobs lost.

IATA Director General Alexandre de Juniac said the association “did not come to this decision lightly” and it recognised universal testing “will present logistical challenges and will impact how people travel”, but said quarantines erected by various governments around the world are “killing the aviation industry”.

De Juniac also said the tests need to be able to be administered by non-medical personnel and governments around the world will need to accept standards like those set by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) so that international travel can open up.

He added that surveys have shown that testing of all travellers will be accepted by the travelling public and said “the majority agreed they were willing to undergo testing as part of the travel process” and that universal testing will “boost passenger confidence by knowing everyone has been tested”. IATA had earlier recommended testing be done and de Juniac said what was new now is that “we have a practical proposal to implement and the testing industry has progressed” with COVID-19 testing systems. He added that normally governments would be pay for the tests or be responsible for coming up with a payment system because such tests would be a “medical measure that should be paid by governments”.

Listen to the IATA media briefing here.

De Juniac said IATA is in discussions with various governments and added that if such a testing system was implemented that passengers who refused the tests would or could be denied boarding on international flights. It’s a risk to test thousands of people in the airports, de Juniac said, but “we had the same issue with security and we managed that successfully”. He said any testing system must be temporary and must be dismantled once the pandemic has passed.

A little more than six months ago Changi Airport in Singapore was full of passengers. Now a lone student waits to say goodbye to a friend in a nearly deserted departure hall. (PHOTO: Matt Driskill)

In a statement issued after IATA briefed reporters on its new testing position, IATA said international travel is 92 percent down on 2019 levels. Over half a year has passed since global connectivity was destroyed as countries closed their borders to fight COVID-19. Some governments have cautiously re-opened borders since then, but there has been limited uptake because either quarantine measures make travel impractical or the frequent changes in COVID-19 measures make planning impossible, the association said.

“The human suffering and global economic pain of the crisis will be prolonged if the aviation industry—on which at least 65.5 million jobs depend—collapses before the pandemic ends,” IATA said in its statement. “And the amount of government support needed to avert such a collapse is rising. Already lost revenues are expected to exceed US$400 billion and the industry was set to post a record net loss of over US$80 billion in 2020 under a more optimistic rebound scenario than has actually unfolded.”

Airlines like Singapore Air have had to ground thousands of planes. (PHOTO: Steve Strike/Outback Photographics)

IATA’s public opinion research revealed strong support for COVID-19 testing in the travel process. Some 65 percent of travellers surveyed agreed that quarantine should not be required if a person tests negative for COVID-19. IATA said its polling also found 84 percent agreed that testing should be required of all travellers and 88 percent agreed that they are willing to undergo testing as part of the travel process

“By calling for the establishment of a global approach to COVID-19 testing for all passengers before departure we are sending a clear signal of aviation’s needs. In the meantime, we are gaining practical knowledge from the testing programs that already exist as part of the various travel bubble or travel corridor initiatives around the world. We must continue with these valuable programs which move us in the right direction by building testing experience, facilitating essential travel and demonstrating testing effectiveness,” said de Juniac.

Some airlines are already testing passengers for COVID-19 before they even check in for their flights. (PHOTO: Emirates)

COVID-19 testing before departure is the preferred option as it will create a “clean” environment throughout the travel process. Testing on arrival dents passenger confidence with the potential for quarantine at destination in the event of a positive result, IATA said.

IATA does not see COVID-19 testing becoming a permanent fixture in the air travel experience, but it will likely be needed into the medium-term for air travel to re-establish itself. “Many see the development of a vaccine as the panacea for the pandemic. It will certainly be an important step, but even after an effective vaccine is globally recognised, ramping up production and distribution is likely to take many months. Testing will be a much-needed interim solution,” said de Juniac.

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Matthew Driskill is the Editor of Asian Aviation and is based in Cambodia. He has been an Asia-based journalist and content producer since 1990 for outlets including Reuters and the International Herald Tribune/New York Times and is a former president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong. He frequently appears on international broadcast outlets like CNN, Al Jazeera and the BBC and has taught journalism at Hong Kong University and the American University of Paris. Driskill has received awards from the Associated Press for Investigative Reporting and Business Writing and in 1989 was named the John J. McCloy Fellow by the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York where he earned his Master's Degree.

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