It’s time to fly again: A robust testing programme should replace mandatory quarantine

Luis Felipe de Oliveira by Luis Felipe de Oliveira | Sep 17, 2020

The airport sector, as an integral part of the global aviation ecosystem, has been among the industries heavily affected by the global pandemic. ACI World’s most up-to-date estimates show the pandemic will result in a reduction of more than 5.6 billion passengers with a decline in total airport revenues on a global scale of more than $104.5 billion (figures in US Dollars) for 2020.

Airports are important engines of economic growth, wealth creation and employment, and key contributors to global prosperity. They employ more than 6.1 million people globally which makes up 60% of all direct employment in the aviation sector. An efficient aviation industry is a key driver of economic and social development, and the recovery of air transport, therefore, is indispensable to the recovery of the global economy.

While many of us were keen to travel again during the summer months, the inconsistent and ever-changing border restrictions along with confusion about quarantine and test requirements has caused frustration for both businesses and travellers. To this day many international borders remain closed and international passengers are still subject to mandatory 14-day quarantine, despite the widespread implementation of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)’s Take-off Guidance via the CART document.

Unfortunately, I had experienced quite a bit of frustration myself over the past three months as I had to spend a total of 42 days in quarantine. Having to self-isolate for so many days has been quite difficult for me as I am a people person and prefer talking to my team face-to-face, and the quarantine had left me feeling restricted in my ability to support the industry during these difficult times.

I welcome the initiatives and calls to action from many of our Canadian industry partners, including those by IATA, during this past week. This is what I mean when I say that collaboration, cooperation, and consistency across the aviation industry will be the key to rebuilding air services, in Canada and globally.

Canadian airports must be commended for their efforts to work with public health officials and air carrier partners to explore ways in which testing and improved contact tracing can be deployed to further mitigate the spread of the pandemic and restore confidence in air travel.

Toronto Pearson Airport is working with Air Canada and McMaster Healthlabs on a new study that allows international passengers to receive a voluntary COVID-19 test upon arrival at the airport. WestJet and Vancouver International Airport are working on a new pilot project that will incorporate COVID-19 testing for WestJet passengers on select departing flights. The pilot will incorporate current best practices on testing and has brought together top industry players and experts to lead the trial and gather key data. WestJet have also reassured passengers that they have increased the frequency of their cleaning and sanitization measures, and implemented new technologies like fogging, killing up to 99.99% of all viruses and bacteria.

Airports around the world are suffering, no different to the situation here in Canada. Without lifting travel restrictions and adequate support from the government we cannot rebuild. We will see more layoffs and pulling of investment in crucial areas in our airport community, for example a risk to progress on the public transport link from downtown Montreal to the international airport here – something I would certainly find invaluable as a frequent flyer.

Urgent and appropriate government action is required to establish globally harmonized, risk-based, practical measures to foster a coordinated recovery while providing reassurance to travellers.

Recovery prospects remain fragile

Aviation markets with a significant share of domestic operations, particularly in countries with a large population and vast geography such as China and the United States, started gradually reopening after having hit rock bottom. While we predicted that June would be the turning point with the recovery of the aviation industry beginning, the international passenger segment continued to be practically non-existent, therefore heavily affecting the financial results of the airports and postponing the recovery.

Before the beginning of summer 2020, most experts in the field of aviation agreed that passenger traffic volumes would not reach 2019 levels before 2023. With many aircraft still grounded, coupled with ongoing inconsistent quarantine measures, the current projections on international market segments signal that passenger volumes will likely only return in 2024.

In addition to recovery taking longer than previously expected, much uncertainty persists for the aviation industry. The recovery of air travel is crucial in the wider global economic recovery but, to succeed, it will need passengers to have confidence in the industry’s focus on their health and welfare and for governments to pursue harmonized, proportionate, evidence-based health measures.

COVID-19 testing as an alternative to quarantine

With quarantine requirements severely limiting the recovery of the aviation industry, governments must look for risk based approaches, leveraging multiple layers of protection to mitigate the risk of transmission, such as COVID-19 testing, travel bubbles or public health corridors as a means to restart air travel.

An effective COVID-19 test has the potential to be a useful risk equalization measure where the rate of new infections in the origin country is significantly higher than in the destination country.  If a test is required, it should be a recognized test such as a PCR test carried out in the 48 hours prior to travel. A risk-based and proportionate approach to testing could help States to avoid taking a binary approach (open vs closed) to travel restrictions, including the need for quarantine, and balance the need for economic recovery. 

As different methods of rapid testing become available, detection of pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic travellers will become more possible, particularly from locations perceived to be at a higher risk. Although more work still needs to be done on the various different types of tests, how they are used, as well as their overall effectiveness, a widespread adoption of COVID-19 tests prior to travelling will allow governments to reopen borders safely, reinstall global connectivity and passenger confidence, and kickstart the global recovery of the aviation industry. I welcome the work being done by ICAO and CAPSCA in this areas, and hope that we can soon formulate some agreed upon guidance that can bring about a global approach.

ACI Initiatives: AHA Programme and Check & Fly portal

To assist airports in restoring public confidence in air travel, and to promote global implementation of best practice, ACI has launched the Airport Health Accreditation Programme (AHA).

The AHA programme recognizes airports that are committed to providing high standards of health and hygiene that accord with globally recognized standards, and prioritizing the health and welfare of travellers, staff, and the public.

ACI has also created a portal to enable information about measures implemented at different airports to be shared with other stakeholders and the travelling public.

While ACI World believes there is currently no single measure that could mitigate all the risks of restarting air travel, the harmonization of any new processes and procedures represents the most effective way of balancing risk mitigation with the need to unlock economies and to enable travel.

Governments and industry regulators will need to ensure that any new processes that they require airports to introduce are reviewed in line with changing data and medical evidence and ensure that they remain aligned with those deployed through other modes of transport and the wider society.

Moving forward together

This is not the first time that the aviation industry has been profoundly impacted by ground-breaking events. The current shutdown, damaging as it is, is only the first act in a drama that will end with an aviation sector categorically different from the one we knew only a few months ago. We need to learn as much as we can from this experience and to try to anticipate and prepare for the various ways in which things could unfold in the future.

As we continue to navigate the global challenge of COVID-19, there is an urgent need for harmonized measures and a risk-based approach that relies on scientific evidence to help restore traveller confidence and support the economic recovery of the aviation ecosystem.

Airports are vital cogs in the aviation ecosystem and are important engines of economic growth, wealth creation, and employment.  The airport community is key in supporting jobs and economic recovery and, as airports restart and then prepare to sustain continuing operations following the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are focused on the health and welfare of travellers, staff, and the public.

Airports can and will be one of the main drivers of the aviation recovery – but they cannot do this alone.

The industry is stronger together and by coming together it will lay the foundations of recovery to ensure that the aviation industry can deliver the economic and social benefits to the local, national, and global communities that it serves

Luis Felipe de Oliveira

Luis Felipe de Oliveira

Director General, ACI World
Luis Felipe joined ACI World as Director General in June 2020 bringing with him vast experience in commercial and technical aviation. He successfully led the Latin American and Caribbean Air Transport Association (ALTA) between October 2017 and May 2020, promoting positive change in the organization. Prior to joining ALTA, Luis Felipe served as World Fuel Services’ Vice President Supply Development for Latin America and Caribbean where he was responsible for improving World Fuel’s aviation fuel business in the region. He is a Chemical Engineer and graduated from the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and has a postgraduate qualification in Finance from the University of São Paulo, an MBA from Dom Cabral Foundation in São Paulo, and Post MBA from Kellogg University in Chicago.
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