There has been a marked unwillingness to get on to planes and jet off to holiday. In the US, more than half of those who flew in the past year surveyed in July were reported to be unwilling to do so again. YouGov polled adults in the UK in July and found that while 45% expect to travel in the UK in the next six months, nearly two-thirds of the public (64%) would not feel safe travelling by plane, up from 40% a month before.
In September, I wrote here about the complexity of the customer journey. The tourist needs to travel from home to the airport and then to pass through check-in, security and the departure lounge to the plane. Then to disembark, pass through immigration and collect baggage before travelling to their accommodation. There is a risk of being prevented from travelling by a lockdown at home or a ban on arrivals in the destination. There are similar risks on the return journey of being kept in quarantine in your chosen destination unable to leave or being required to quarantine on return. Travelling is perceived as being less safe and significantly more difficult than it was pre-Covid.
IATA is calling for all departing air passengers to be tested for coronavirus so that existing quarantine systems can be scrapped. IATA Director General Alexandre de Juniac has acknowledged that presently coronavirus test results take several hours and are expensive, but de Juniac claimed fast-acting antigen tests costing from $7 each are to be available ‘within weeks’. By “signalling now that this is the industry’s preferred option, we are sending a strong message to the market that should accelerate development and earmark aviation as a big customer.”
Heathrow has tested three rapid testing solutions on airport staff and shared the results with the British government. John Holland-Kaye, CEO, Heathrow Airport, argues that: “Testing is the lifeline that the UK’s aviation sector needs to get back on its feet. We’ve put some of the most cutting-edge rapid testing technologies into action at Heathrow to see which offers the best solution.” The UK government is moving slowly. The minister responsible, Grant Shapps, shared the preliminary details of a ‘Global Travel Taskforce’ on twitter earlier this month. A final decision on how the UK plans to implement Covid-19 testing for international arrivals will not be made until at least November.
Since 14th September, passengers have been able to take a Covid-19 test on-site at Brussels airport, German biotech company Centogene opened a walk-in testing centre on July where passengers can pay to take a coronavirus test and get their results within hours. The results can be printed on to the boarding pass for those flying to countries requiring a negative test before entering.
South Africa is easing travel restrictions on arrivals just as infection rates are rising in its primary source markets in Europe and the US. The incidence and virulence of viruses is seasonal, and north-south travel is, therefore, prone to a greater level of uncertainty. This is a particular issue for South Africa, as it is for many destinations reliant on travellers flying north-south and many do. The same problems affect people travelling south-north, but fewer destinations are significantly impacted by south-north travel.
In South Africa, the Department of Health has introduced antigen tests for SARS-CoV-2 at all ports of entry with immediate effect. Certified negative SARS-CoV-2 PCR test result (not older than 72 hours) are required. Accepting that not all originating markets can provide PCR test results pre-departure, the Department of Health has accepted that antigen testing will enable the management of travellers arriving without certified PCR tests.” Antigen tests are attractive because results are available in 15 to 30 mins and can be done at the point of contact with the patient, for example, at airports.
Regrettably, international aviation is still constrained by the absence of rapid tests pre-departure and on arrival. This reflects the patchwork nature of the management of the pandemic around the world. Covid-19 is challenging because so many are asymptomatic and because a test may not detect the virus in someone incubating it. There are solutions. Since August all passengers arriving in Iceland have been able to choose between a 14-day quarantine or a double testing procedure along with quarantining for 5-6 days.
Let’s hope that IATA’s initiative is successful and that we see the introduction of a network of pre-departure and on arrival testing along with a reduced quarantine period developed rapidly over the next month or two. This will help, but travellers will still likely be risk-averse concerned about the health and financial consequences of catching the virus and being ill or trapped abroad.