Can Airport COVID-19 Testing Encourage More People To Fly?

Desperate to try to fill planes again, airlines are rushing to implement on the spot, rapid-response pre-flight Covid-19 testing for passengers. Will it work, and what are the stumbling blocks?


So if you’re itching to travel, the airlines, for their part, are going to say, go ahead and do it. Many airlines are requiring masks. They’re disinfecting cabins. They’re touting their hospital-grade air filtration systems. They’re even starting to do COVID tests at the airport. Here’s NPR’s David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Imagine a Hawaiian vacation with the lush islands and sparkling beaches. It’s the kind of trip people plan for way in advance. And then COVID got in the way.

MATT BATTIATA: We had a trip from last spring.

SCHAPER: Matt Battiata, his wife and four kids postponed their dream vacation back in March when Hawaii began requiring every traveler to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. That essentially shut down tourism. After all, who would want to fly all the way to Hawaii just to be trapped in their hotel room for two weeks? But the Battiata family finally landed at Honolulu’s airport last week after it opened to those who test negative for the coronavirus.

BATTIATA: We got a rapid test. It took about 30 minutes – you know? – the nasal swab tests. Everybody’s clear. Yeah, we’re very excited.

SCHAPER: And airlines are excited, too, to get paying customers back on their planes. So they’re now offering passengers preflight COVID-19 testing for some destinations. United was the first to announce on-the-spot preflight testing at San Francisco’s airport for Hawaii-bound travelers. For results in 15 minutes, it cost you $250. There are also cheaper 48-hour in-home or clinic testing options. And other airlines are following suit. Now even some airports are getting into the COVID testing game.

JOE LOPANO: We do the test right here in the main terminal.

SCHAPER: Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano says his airport is offering travelers to any destination two kinds of tests.

LOPANO: The rapid test, which will give you results in 15 minutes, costs $57. And then the more accurate PCR test costs $125, and you get your results within 48 hours.

SCHAPER: A few other airports now offer testing, too. Henry Harteveldt heads the Atmosphere Research Group, a travel industry research firm.

HENRY HARTEVELDT: What the airlines and airports are trying to do is remove every possible obstacle people have when they start to think about taking a trip.

SCHAPER: But some public health experts are concerned because not all of the tests are reliable.

MERCEDES CARNETHON: And what that means is that the likelihood that they will actually identify a positive case in an asymptomatic individual is fairly low.

SCHAPER: Mercedes Carnethon is an epidemiologist at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

CARNETHON: You could get a negative test. But in fact, a day or two later, your viral levels could surge, and then you’re really quite infectious. And so I fear that it provides a false sense of security to do the on-the-spot testing.

SCHAPER: Nonetheless, the Global Business Travel Association is joining others in calling for more widespread airport COVID-19 testing in an attempt to jumpstart an industry decimated by the pandemic.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.


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