IATA puts forward possible criteria for COVID-19 testing

(Photo: Korean Air)

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has released criteria which governments should use if they choose to introduce COVID-19 testing for travellers arriving from ‘high risk’ countries. IATA said testing must deliver results fast, be able to be conducted at scale, and operate to very high rates of accuracy. Additionally, they must be cost-effective and not create an economic or logistical barrier to travel.
Earlier this month ICAO published its Take off document which is the global guidance for governments to follow when resuming commercial air travel.

Take off outlines layers of measures to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission during air travel and the risk of importation of COVID-19 via air travel. It said COVID-19 testing should not be a necessary condition for re-opening borders or resuming air services.

IATA said that technology for rapid point-of-care Polymerized Chain Reaction (PCR) testing could be a useful layer of protection for travellers from countries considered as higher risk, potentially removing the need for more burdensome and intrusive measures such as quarantine which is a major barrier to travel and the recovery of demand.
Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general and CEO, commented: “Airlines are committed to reducing the risks of COVID-19 transmission via air travel and COVID-19 testing could play an important role. But it must be implemented in line with ICAO’s global re-start guidance with the aim of facilitating travel. Speed, scale and accuracy are the most critical performance criteria for testing to be effectively incorporated into the travel process.”

IATA added that as part of the travel process COVID-19 testing would need to be conducted by trained public health officials and meet the following criteria:

  • Speed: Testing results should be delivered quickly, with results available in under an hour as the minimum standard.
  • Scale: If testing takes place at the airport, testing capacity of several hundreds of tests per hour must be achievable. The use of saliva for taking samples rather than nasal or throat swabs would facilitate this and would also be expected to reduce time and improve passenger acceptance.
  • Accuracy: Extremely high accuracy is essential. Both false negative and false positive results must be below 1%.

Where does testing fit in the travel process?
According to IATA, COVID-19 testing would ideally be required in advance of arrival at the airport and within 24 hours of travel. Passengers arriving “ready-to-fly” reduces the risk of contagion in the airport and enables early re-accommodation for any traveller who tests positive.
It said that if testing is required as part of the travel process, it is recommended at departure. Governments would need to mutually recognise test results and data transmission should take place directly between passengers and governments in a similar manner as e-visa clearances are currently handled. Also, any testing requirements should only be in place for as long as necessary. To ensure this, regular evaluations should be conducted.

Who Should Pay?
IATA said the cost of testing is an important factor in the passengers’ decision about whether to travel, and that such tests should facilitate travel and not provide an economic barrier. It noted that tests at some European destinations are costing in excess of $200, and described this as “a real concern”. It supports the World Health Organization (WHO) International Health Regulations which requires governments to bear the costs of mandatory health testing. Where a test is offered on a voluntary basis, it should be charged at cost price.

What happens when someone tests positive?
IATA wants testing to take place prior to travel or at the point of departure and a positive result would mean that the passenger could not travel as planned. It said that in such cases, airlines have been offering to either re-book or refund their customers in line with the airline’s commercial policy. IATA said some airlines are offering the same flexibility to passengers who suspect that they have symptoms consistent with COVID-19 as well as members of the same travelling party, particularly when they are members of the same household.
IATA hopes to avoid any responsibility for airlines in situations where testing is mandated on arrival. Should a passenger tests positive, then IATA believes the passenger should be treated according to the requirements of the receiving State. An IATA statement concluded that “Airlines should not be required to repatriate the passenger(s) or ‘punished’ with financial penalties such as fines or through operational penalties such as the withdrawal of the right to operate in the market.”