The announcement of a Covid‑test regime for arrivals to England from mid-December drew a broad welcome this week. But industry sights are already set on the next stage – a move to pre-departure testing.
A leading aviation source said: “We want to move toward pre-departure tests. That is likely to require global acceptance of antigen LAMP tests that are cheaper and quicker so we can do tests at airports.
“We don’t know how a test after five days and release from quarantine will impact demand. No one has ever modelled this.
“The whole point is we need to get rid of quarantine. Pre-departure testing is part of the taskforce [remit]. We suspect it’s looking at different systems. If you can do a quick test at the departure airport it will give confidence to passengers.”
There is a suggestion the government should pilot pre‑departure testing on routes such as to New York and the Canary Islands with a second test a few days after arrival.
British Airways and American Airlines have announced a testing trial on some New York-Heathrow flights and United Airlines is already trialling a similar scheme.
However, there is disagreement about when pre-departure tests should occur.
Iata advocates tests up to 72 hours before flying. But an aviation source said: “If I was the government, I would be worried if you take a test 72 hours in advance. What is to stop you picking up the virus two days later? The closer you do it to departure the better.”
Bilateral agreements with other governments will be needed for pre-departure tests to work. The source said: “We need to get to a common standard. The work of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) on this is pivotal and the UK government is working closely with ICAO.”
ICAO published a manual on Testing and Cross-border Risk Management last week.
The government also signed off on some financial support for airports in England – up to £8 million per airport to cover business rates.
Heathrow dismissed the amount, but the source said: “The government’s priority is to focus on opening up travel.
“Airlines can take on more debt. We have to get people flying – the government is right to focus on that and testing is the first part of that.
“It may be airlines will have to say ‘We need more support’ – ideally, access to loans.
“If the industry can get through to June or July, potentially with a vaccine in place, there will be pent-up demand. But there is a lot of uncertainty. Up to April-May we’re not expecting huge volumes of traffic. Confidence is still very low.”
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