The global air travel sector is facing its largest crisis in the history of the concept of flight. The industry, which was booming just ten months ago, is continuing to grapple with the economic and social impacts of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
For the majority of the world’s countries, borders remain closed, international flight schedules have been slashed and mass redundancies are continuing across the aviation sector. It’s an unprecedented time, and recovery is not yet on the horizon.
The current goal is clear: to ensure that COVID19 and air travel can, as safely as possible, coexist in a world so accustomed to flying and one that’s reliant on flight for more than just means of transport to holiday destinations.
But for many countries, the risk of importing COVID-19 cases from elsewhere outweighs the losses incurred from a closed border policy. This is especially true for countries like Qatar, which has had relative success in controlling the spread of the virus within the population thus far.
Ultimately, the last thing any government wants to do is jeopardise pandemic progress by opening the floodgates to the rest of the world. As you can imagine, for airlines, these population protection policies are a nightmare.
Testing passengers for the novel coronavirus remains one of the few strategic options available to airlines – but only if it’s rapid, reliable, as non-invasive as possible, and widespread. A ‘sterile flight’ is the ultimate goal – whereby all passengers are able to test negative for the virus within hours of boarding the aircraft by undergoing a quick saliva swab or spit test.
Just two weeks ago, the International Air Transport Association [IATA] released the following promising statement: “Rapid and affordable antigen tests that can be administered by non-medical staff are expected to become available in coming weeks and should be rolled out under globally agreed standards”.
The hopeful message, though welcomed by a fragile industry, offered very few details.
Fast forward to this week, and in an exclusive one-to-one interview hosted by myself at the World Affairs Councils of America CEO Forum with Akbar Al Baker, Group Chief Executive of Qatar Airways, the flagship national carrier revealed the following:
“There are major advances in testing, which is good news for us as an airline, and also good news for countries because they will be able to test people quickly,” Al Baker said.
“It could become just another checkpoint at airports around the world that we – as passengers – eventually become accustomed to”
“I can reveal that Qatar Airways is already one of the first airlines that has placed a huge order for the rapid tests, which is now available. Roche is one of the pharmaceutical companies that has brought this rapid test [to the market], and we will start testing our passengers, a lot of them – hundreds of thousands of them, starting from the middle of this month,” the Qatari official said.
“We want to be at the forefront of giving comfort to our passengers, that when they travel with Qatar Airways – they are in safe hands,” he added.
With the Qatari carrier set to become one of the first in the world to introduce rapid antigen testing with results ready in 15 minutes, it will be the most significant step forward for air travel since the World Health Organisation declared a global ‘pandemic’ in mid-March.
Last-minute airport testing is more effective because it seals off the system against forged certificates or infections contracted just before travel and has the ability to push down the COVID-19 risk more effectively than any other measure implemented so far.
Passengers could arrive at the airport, undergo a rapid test, check-in, and providing the result is negative, proceed airside, ready to fly. Scientists have already proven the risk of contracting the virus on an aircraft remains very low and the introduction of rapid testing could therefore almost eliminate the risk to passengers and (hopefully) restore their confidence in travel.
While antigen tests are faster but less sensitive and therefore are slightly more likely to miss positive cases than the regular PCR swab test alternatives, the good news is the accuracy gap has narrowed over the last few months following significant progress with the manufacturing of tests. Roche, the multinational healthcare company providing the tests, says its rapid antigen now has a sensitivity of 96.52% and a specificity of 99.68%, based on 400+ samples from two independent studies.
Al Baker said for this to have maximum effect, there must be a global standard to ensure rapid testing is widely deployed, recognised, and adopted. If so, it could become just another checkpoint at airports around the world that we – as passengers – eventually become accustomed to – just like the 100-mil liquid rule and secondary security screening for destinations like the United States.
If there’s one certainty in a sky now overcast with uncertainty, it’s that while the recovery of aviation will be slow, turbulent and uneven for the entire global sector as a whole, governments have the ability to determine just how quickly recovery of the sector can resume if they outline and implement a ‘new normal’ for air travel.
Alex Macheras is an aviation analyst, broadcasting and discussing the world’s aviation news across international networks including BBC, Good Morning Britain, and Al Jazeera in the Middle East.