Expecting slow vaccine rollout, airlines keep pushing for tests

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Coronavirus covid test [Credit: Horth Rasur/Shutterstock.com]
Covid-testing arrangements between airlines and governments are increasing significantly. Photo Credit: Horth Rasur/Shutterstock.com

The expectation that Covid-19 vaccines will begin to be administered this month has provided a massive boost to the medium-term outlook for the cash-strapped airline industry.

But with vaccine penetration not expected to reach critical mass until well into 2021, airlines are also sounding the alarm that there can be no let-up in the deployment of Covid-19 testing as a replacement for ongoing border closures and quarantine requirements.

"It is really important that governments don't wait for vaccines to get here and don't take their foot off the pedal," said James Wiltshire, assistant director for government affairs for IATA, during the trade group's recent Annual General Meeting, which this year was held virtually.

IATA projects that airlines will burn through an additional $80 billion between the fourth quarter of this year and the third quarter of next year. As such, Wiltshire stressed, many carriers simply don't have the cash reserves to wait for widespread vaccine penetration before resuming larger-scale international operations.

His comments were echoed regularly during IATA's three-day meeting in late November, with industry heavyweights such as Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr, KLM CEO Pieter Elbers and IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac among those who weighed in.

In addition, United CEO Scott Kirby expressed similar sentiments in a recent LinkedIn post.

"Testing, testing, testing," Kirby wrote. "My team has heard me say this over and over, and I will continue to say it every day until we have a vaccine that is widely available. I can't underscore enough how critical Covid-19 screening is to reopen the world."

The calls come as testing arrangements between airlines and governments are increasing significantly, though on a route-for-route basis, such arrangements remain in a relatively early ramp-up stage.

Developments since Nov. 9, when Pfizer became the first of what are now three pharmaceutical companies to announce successful Covid-19 vaccine trials, suggest that at least for now, the development of testing regimes for air travel continues apace.

In just the final week of November, for example, the Big Three U.S. carriers each unveiled new testing arrangements.

On United flights from Houston, customers headed to 10 destinations in the Caribbean and Latin America will have an option to take a self-collected, mail-in Covid-19 test to enable the cross-border travel.

Delta said it will launch an Atlanta to Rome testing program in concert with the Italian government that will enable those U.S. citizens who are allowed to go to Italy right now to avoid the Mediterranean country's mandatory 14-day quarantine requirement.

And American announced Nov. 30 that it will begin facilitating at-home testing for flyers traveling between Miami and Santiago, Chile, as well as for flyers on seven routes between the U.S. mainland and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Still, testing has proven to be an imperfect solution for restarting travel while the pandemic rages. The replacement in October of Hawaii's mandatory visitor quarantine with a state-approved testing program resulted in an immediate leap in air service and visitation. But on Dec. 2, Kauai reinstated its 14-day quarantine after the island's total number of Covid-19 cases doubled in the six weeks following the reopening.

Meanwhile, the launch of a planned travel bubble between Singapore and Hong Kong, which is to depend upon testing, has now been scuttled twice because Covid-19 cases are inching upward in Hong Kong.

Testing requirements can also be onerous. For example, flyers who participate in Delta's Atlanta-Rome testing program will have to show a negative PCR test taken up to 72 hours before departure and then get a negative result on a rapid antigen test administered prior to boarding in Atlanta. A test will also be required upon arrival in Rome and upon departure from Rome.

The launch of Covid-19 vaccinations brings into sight a time when such testing programs could become redundant.

Indeed, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has already said that the Australian carrier plans to require proof that customers on international flights have been vaccinated once a vaccine is available in the marketplace.

But IATA argues that the time for requiring vaccines remains a ways off.

Further, said IATA's de Juniac, testing will be an unavoidable complement to vaccination.

Judson Rollins, founder of the New Zealand-based consultancy Propel Aviation Solutions, said de Juniac is right.

He noted that the makers of the three vaccines that have thus far conducted successful Covid-19 trials expect to be able to produce approximately 5.3 billion doses combined by the end of 2021, a figure that correlates to approximately 3.1 billion completed vaccinations, since both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require double doses. The world population is 7.8 billion.

Rollins also said that vaccine rollouts will be slowed by public skepticism. A recent Gallup poll, for example, found that 42% of Americans say they won't get vaccinated.

And even as people take the vaccine, there will be questions early on about whether those individuals still present any transmission risk, especially as new strains of the Covid-19 virus develop.

"Vaccination and testing are going to be hand-in-hand, at least until we reach global herd immunity, and that could be a few years away," Rollins said. 

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