With all the talk about rapid COVID testing before and potentially also after flights, it seems the industry is pinning its hopes of recovery on this practice. However, China’s Xiamen Airlines believes too much testing could be a negative thing and makes some good points regarding the practicalities of mass testing at airports.
Heated discussions at SkyTeam
The notion of rapid preflight testing as a motivator for a restart of international travel is widely being pushed by airlines and aviation associations around the world. In the last week alone, we’ve seen a number of airlines, including Alaska and Etihad starting to offer preflight COVID tests as part of the new travel process.
However, it seems not everyone was onboard with the push for testing. At last week’s World Aviation Festival, Su Chengjian, head of partnerships and alliances at Xiamen Airlines, was asked whether he viewed testing as key to opening up international travel. He said,
“This is a topic that is undergoing some heated discussion amongst SkyTeam members. And IATA are also pushing that kind of initiative.
“We need to avoid too much testing, both for departure and arrival passengers. Testing is actually a double edged sword. Testing can definitely lower the risk of infection by the virus, but it also brings troubles for the passengers. And not just the passengers, but for the airlines and for the airport authorities.”
It’s an unusual standpoint from the Xiamen representative, but perhaps understandable given the market in which the airline operates.
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Problems for PaxEx
The issue, in Su’s view, is that the need for too much testing will negatively impact the passenger experience. Not only that but being in the company of hundreds of strangers for prolonged periods in a non-HEPA filtered environment like the airport is surely not a good thing. He said,
“For people, they have to stay at the airport for a long time. They have to wait in a long queue at the airport, including both check-in and arrival.”
While Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport remains the world’s busiest, the second busiest is one of Xiamen’s hubs. Beijing Capital Airport moved over 100 million people in 2019, just 10 million behind ATL. The move to the newly opened Daxing, which Xiamen made in March, has increased this capacity further, and could see even more passengers passing through in future.
In a crowded marketplace like that, you can see how preflight testing could quickly result in bottlenecks of passengers. Should testing be required at both ends of the journey, such as is likely to be the case without widespread acceptance of a standard protocol, the situation will be exacerbated and could see thousands of travelers trapped in airports for extended periods. And that’s no good for anyone.
SkyTeam made its decision
Despite Su’s comment that not everyone on SkyTeam was on board with the testing mantra, it seems that the decision has been swung. In a statement sent to Simple Flying this week, the airline alliance said that its member airlines support the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) call for standardized COVID-19 testing before departure. It said,
“SkyTeam and its 19 members are advocating for the enhancement and implementation of testing protocols, both pre-departure and at destination where necessary, to enable the safe reopening of borders and offer an effective alternative to quarantines.”
Chairman of the SkyTeam alliance board, Walter Cho, further added,
“Flying is the engine of the global economy. With international passenger numbers down 92 percent versus last year, there is an urgent need to promote business recovery by restoring customer confidence in air travel through a globally standardized testing solution.”
While testing, be it preflight or both before and after travel, is likely to be manageable in the short term, thanks to a lack of demand from travelers, in the long run, it’s a further hurdle for airlines and airports to figure out. Crowds of people waiting in line for their rapid COVID test is not going to be conducive to safe travel. It’s yet another thing that needs to be worked out before we can truly embark on the ‘new normal’.
What are your thoughts on testing? Let us know in the comments.