Last month, pre-flight rapid Covid-19 testing was hailed as an economic salvation by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade association representing over 260 of the world’s airlines.
“The key to restoring the freedom of mobility across borders is systematic Covid-19 testing of all travelers before departure,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO. “This will give governments the confidence to open their borders without complicated risk models that see constant changes in the rules imposed on travel. Testing all passengers will give people back their freedom to travel with confidence. And that will put millions of people back to work.”
The IATA says there is worldwide public support for mandatory pre-departure testing, citing its own public opinion survey, which found that 84% of respondents believe testing should be required of all travelers and 65% think travelers who test negative for Covid-19 should not have to quarantine.
In the U.S., folks seem a bit less certain. Less than half of Americans (46%) say on-site rapid same-day testing of airline passengers for Covid-19 would get people flying again, according to the latest Harris Poll Covid-19 tracking surveybeing released today.
Domestic air travel is down more than 60% compared to where it was this time last year, but there are clear indications that Americans are itching to fly more. Last month, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened more than 900,000 passengers on just two days out of 30, and both were during Labor Day weekend, according to the agency’s throughput data. As of today, October isn’t yet half over and already the TSA has hit the 900,000-passenger milestone on five days this month, a clear sign that more Americans are comfortable getting on a plane.
No U.S. airline has stated that it will require a negative Covid-19 test before boarding. But for passengers, a negative test can mean the ability to skip quarantining at their destination. United Airlines, American Airlines and JetBlue have announced they will offer pre-flight testing for certain destinations such as Hawaii, Costa Rica and the Caribbean.
Beginning tomorrow, for instance, United Airlines will offer rapid polymerase chain reaction (PCR) nasal-swab tests at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to passengers heading to Hawaii, where a negative FDA-approved test result lets them avoid quarantining for two weeks upon arrival. That test costs $250 per passenger, on top of airfare.
A small but growing number of major airports in the U.S. — from Miami and Tampa to San Francisco and Dallas — have recently introduced rapid on-site Covid-19 testing. That list now includes all three major airports in the New York City area: LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy and Newark.
Even so, not all Covid-19 tests are created equal and you typically get what you pay for. Some airports, like Tampa International Airport, offer both a rapid antigen test ($57, results within 15 minutes) and a rapid PCR test ($125, results in 48 hours).
Rapid antigen tests are faster and cheaper than rapid PCR molecular tests, but they are also considerably less accurate. The rate of false negative results for rapid antigen tests can be as high as 50%, which is why the FDA does not considerantigen tests as a single determination for active infection.
Even as Covid-19 testing becomes more commonplace at airports, persuading Americans that it’s safe to travel may remain a heavy lift during a pandemic that is still rampaging through the United States.
The Harris Poll’s latest survey found that one third of Americans (33%) are less likely to fly now than they were three months ago, with a smaller fraction (22%) saying they are more likely.
“Providing safe and reliable testing is certainly one way to give some concerned fliers peace of mind,” says John Gerzema, CEO of The Harris Poll. “But as shown in our data, nearly six in 10 are no closer to hopping on a plane than they were back in July and even with rapid testing available pre-flight, the American people are still hesitant to board a plane with others.”