Oct 2, 2020 - Economy

Airlines push for testing before takeoff to rekindle confidence in travel

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Global airlines are pushing for widespread coronavirus testing as an alternative to quarantine measures and other travel restrictions that have dampened passenger demand and decimated the industry.

Why it matters: Airline officials have pegged the industry's recovery to the discovery of a coronavirus vaccine, but it could be mid-2021 before one is widely available.

  • In the meantime, industry officials say systematic testing of all passengers before departure could get around the restrictions and help restore public confidence in flying.

The big picture: Virtually every country in the world imposed some sort of travel restrictions to combat the pandemic, including quarantines, testing and contract tracing.

  • Even in the U.S., at least 17 states, including Hawaii and New York, have quarantine restrictions on out-of-state visitors.

Yes, but: The effect of travel restrictions on the spread of the coronavirus is still not understood, the New York Times notes.

  • Global health policy has long encouraged global mass tourism and open borders, even during outbreaks, the Times notes — until the novel coronavirus arrived, triggering country-by-country responses.
  • The evidence both in favor and against restrictions is "very, very thin," Kelley Lee, a global health professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, tells Axios.
  • Her research team is trying to fill that data gap and help government leaders make more informed decisions.

Where it stands: After months of lockdowns, some countries are cautiously reopening their borders to international visitors (although Americans are still unwelcome in most countries, with some exceptions).

  • Hawaii will also begin welcoming back tourists this month — provided they test negative for the virus.

What's new: To facilitate the restart of travel, airlines are stepping in to offer coronavirus testing as another layer of precautions — besides enhanced cleaning, masks and social distancing — to reassure travelers.

Zoom in: United Airlines will offer COVID tests to Hawaii-bound passengers in San Francisco starting Oct. 15, and says it could expand testing to other airports before the end of the year.

  • Passengers can make an appointment for a rapid test at the airport on the day of departure or perform a self-collected, mail-in test no more than 72 hours ahead of their trip. Antigen and antibody tests, which are deemed less accurate, will not be accepted, Hawaii officials note.
  • Passengers who test negative can skip Hawaii's 14-day quarantine. A test will not be required to board the plane, but without proof of a negative test result travelers will be required to quarantine upon arrival in Hawaii.
  • The onsite test is $250, while the mail-in self-test is $80, plus overnight shipping.
  • Hawaiian Airlines will offer testing as well.

What to watch: The International Air Transport Association wants government health authorities worldwide to standardize coronavirus testing for passengers — ideally with a rapid, inexpensive and accurate antigen test.

  • But as production ramps up, schools and medical facilities could take priority.
  • Earlier this week, the Trump administration scooped up 150 million rapid, point-of-care coronavirus tests from Abbott Laboratories in a bid to help open reopen schools and jumpstart the economy.
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