Photo: Anna Shvets

MIAMI – The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has released criteria for the use of COVID-19 testing in the travel process.

According to IATA’s press release, should governments choose to introduce COVID-19 testing for travelers arriving from countries considered as high risk, testing must deliver results fast, be able to be conducted at scale, and operate to very high rates of accuracy.

Additionally, IATA advises that testing must be cost-effective and not create an economic or logistical barrier to travel.

ICAO Headquarters, MOntreal.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Takeoff Guidance

The published ICAO Takeoff guidance is the global guidance for governments to follow in reconnecting their people and economies by air. 

Takeoff 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.  

However, IATA states that COVID-19 testing should not be a necessary condition for re-opening borders or resuming air services.

Rapid point-of-care Polymerized Chain Reaction (PCR) testing technology could be a useful protective layer for travelers from countries considered to be at higher risk, potentially eliminating the need for more burdensome and intrusive measures such as quarantine, a major barrier to travel and demand recovery.

IATA Headquarters, Montreal.

Remarks from IATA CEO

IATA’s Director General and CEO Alexander de Juniac said that airlines that were 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,” said de Juniac.

COVID-19 Testis Criteria

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%. 
Photo: Francisco Àvia. BY-ND 2.0.

COVID-19 Testing in the travel process

An ideal scenario would be for COVID-19 testing to be required in advance of arrival at the airport and within 24 hours of travel, as passengers arriving at the airport “ready-to-fly” reduce the risk of contagion and allow for early re-accommodation for any traveler who tests positive.

Additionally, if testing is required as part of the travel process, IATA states that it is recommended at departure.

It is understood that governments would need to mutually recognize test results and data transmission should take place directly between passengers and governments in a similar manner as e-visa clearances are currently handled.

Any testing requirements should only be in place for as long as necessary. To ensure this, regular evaluations should be conducted.

WHO Headquarters, Geneva.

Who should bear the cost

As testing should facilitate travel and not provide an economic barrier, its cost is an important consideration. With testing at some European destinations costing in excess of US$200, making this is a real concern.

Thus, IATA supports the World Health Organization (WHO) International Health Regulations requiring 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?

Ideally, testing is done before travel or at the point of departure and a positive result would mean the passenger could not travel as planned. In this case, airlines have been offering consumers flexibility.

This involves rebooking or refunds as per the business policy of the airline. Many airlines give the same versatility to passengers suspecting to have COVID-19-consistent symptoms as well as members of the same traveling group, particularly when they are members of the same household.

If testing is necessary upon arrival and a passenger test is positive, then the passenger should be treated as per the receiving State ‘s requirements.

On a final note, IATA recommends that airlines should not be forced to repatriate or ‘punish’ passengers with financial penalties such as fines or operating restrictions such as revocation of the right to operate in the market.

Editor’s notes:

PCR testing detects the presence of the virus in a person’s body (viral RNA) before antibodies form or symptoms of the disease are present.

Serological testing for coronavirus is not appropriate for purposes of facilitating travel as they detect the presence of antibodies to determine if a person has had the disease.

Serological testing does not detect the disease before antibodies are produced.