Rapid COVID Testing at Airports Would Benefit Travelers, Industries, Economy

The aviation industry’s recovery from COVID-19 has been, like so many others, a roller coaster ride. A couple of months after the initial shutdown, airports and airlines appeared to be regaining strength, with passenger bookings increasing and flights returning to the skies. However, as should be expected when dealing with the unknown, the solutions that had been discussed several months ago have had to be adjusted due to virus numbers rising again.

I have traveled several times over the last few months. The airlines and airports have done a good job of communicating restrictions to provide a positive, safe experience for their customers. The airports and airplanes are clean, and the procedures and protocols implemented to combat the virus make sense. I would even make the case that airports and airplanes are some of the safer places to be in the COVID environment.

What is impeding the industry’s recovery right now are the testing delays associated with local, national and international quarantine requirements. It is understandable that governments need to implement requirements in response to the rise in virus numbers. However, relying on the overwhelmed and cumbersome community-based testing process is making many trips unworkable.

For example, I had made plans to visit a region that required a negative COVID test within 72 hours of arrival or to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Quarantining for two weeks at my destination was not an option, and the COVID tests offered in my community were taking a week or more to produce results. As a result, I had to cancel important plans. This is happening to many travelers and needlessly impacting the industry’s recovery.

However, there are ways to address this issue while keeping travelers safe. The International Air Transport Association recently called for consistent COVID testing that is accurate, fast, cost-effective, carried out prior to travel and whose results are accepted by the arrival country or state. Airports in Japan have started performing COVID tests for arriving passengers that can provide results in one hour, and German airports test their citizens who arrive from hotspot countries and regions. In the U.S., some individual airports are developing COVID testing for outbound passengers. When a community puts a quarantine requirement in place, it should provide an option for arriving passengers to “test out” of the quarantine. Airports that make testing available to departing passengers are assuring them that their trip can happen regardless of quarantine requirements.

The aviation industry needs to push the federal government and work with the medical industry to implement a system of rapid COVID testing to support air travel requirements, especially for passengers traveling to quarantined locations. Ideally, this would lead to national standards for air travel testing. A COVID test that meets the necessary standards should become part of the travel process or service offerings at the airport.

The process would include the following elements: communities that have quarantine requirements would need to have a test-out option; airports would provide a COVID test service at their airports that a traveler could use a day or more before the flight or, if the test had rapid results, the day of the flight; the air carrier would be notified that the passenger had a clean COVID test and the passenger record would be updated to reflect that information; and that information would allow the passenger to board the aircraft to their destination and avoid the quarantine.

Until these changes are made, consider how your airport could provide that service. If you need some assistance, let us know. In addition to our aviation experience, Woolpert has multiple strategic planning professionals with health care experience who are collaborating with world-renowned Stanford Health Care. This team can help put a plan together for you. We also have partnered with Centric Consulting to help state and local governments effectively access and maximize CARES Act funds for COVID-related costs.

Until an effective testing system is in place or a vaccine is widely available, the aviation industry will continue to struggle. The support provided through CARES Act funding is important, but developing proactive approaches is also needed.

Jeff Mulder

Woolpert Senior Consultant Jeff Mulder, A.A.E., has more than 30 years of experience in the aviation industry. He has served as the director of airports in three states, has a master’s degree in business administration, is a commercial pilot and a certified flight instructor, and has chaired the American Association of Airport Executives.