Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Air Carriers Push for Change in Flight Regulations to Beat the Virus

Testing not Quarantine is Required Says IATA
Shipping News Feature

WORLDWIDE – As the international passenger air travel market sags under the weight of the virus restrictions, so the reduced belly hold capacity impacts cargo carrying options. Any improvements in travel arrangements for the public therefore affect the air freight sector and, as ever, representatives of the airlines are understandably pushing for a relaxation of the regulations.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has, unsurprisingly, then welcomed the publication of the Manual on Testing and Cross Border Risk Management Measures by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). This document provides governments a risk-based assessment tool for using testing programs that the carriers hope could alleviate quarantine requirements.

Hardly surprising for IATA to support the document, as the Swiss headquartered Association joined other industry experts (Airports Council International, International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations) in its production. The document however also was put out by the ICAO Collaborative Arrangement for the Prevention and Management of Public Health Events in Civil Aviation (CAPSCA), which brings together the expertise of states, public health authorities and the likes of the World Health Organization (WHO), Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

The key to this approach is the acceptance that testing will alleviate, if not remove, the need for quarantine. Just today the UK government has announced visitors from overseas will have the option of a £150 test which, if negative, will reduce their required isolation period from 14 days to 5.

IATA refers to comments from the WHO’s International Health Regulations Emergency Committee Chair, Dr. Didier Houssin, who also foresees a role for testing as a means of re-opening international travel without quarantine measures. Following the WHO Emergency Committee meeting on 30 October 2020, he said:

”Clearly the use of the tests is certainly now supposed to have a much larger place compared to quarantine, for example, which would certainly facilitate things considering all the efforts which have been made by airlines and by airports.”

The proponents of testing point to several recent pilot programs which have been undertaken at a variety of global locations, claiming the following:

  • A study on arriving passengers in Toronto tested passengers three times: on arrival, at day 5 and at day 14. 1% of passengers tested positive over that period, with 70% being detected with the first test. In other words, the study’s results could indicate the potential for about 60 out of every 20,000 travellers to go undetected on arrival, which is significantly lower than the underlying prevalence in Canada.
  • A pre-departure testing program for the Milan/Linate-Rome/Fiumicino route detected about 0.8% of passengers with Covid-19. As this level of incidence is considerably higher than the reported prevalence of Covid-19 in Italy at the time, it would appear that not only was testing highly effective in identifying infected travellers but that systematic testing is the best way to detect asymptomatic cases and to break chains of transmission.
  • A soon to be published European study is even more optimistic. It models scenarios for a highly effective testing mechanism. In a low prevalence scenario, there is the potential to see the number of undetected positive cases as few as 5 per 20,000 travellers, increasing to 25 in high prevalence situations. These levels of incidence are still much lower than the underlying prevalence of Covid-19 in Europe.
  • IATA modelled the testing results to quantify the risk that would remain if systematic pre-departure testing were implemented. Assuming that testing identifies 75% of travellers correctly who have Covid-19 (the effectiveness of the test) from a source population with a prevalence of 0.8% of the population (e.g., similar to Chile), the risk is that 0.06% of passengers would have the disease and go undetected. That would mean 12 undetected positive cases for every 20,000 arriving passengers.

IATA says These studies all point in the direction of testing being an efficient means to limit the spread of Covid-19 through air travel, with Director General and CEO Alexandre de Juniac, commenting:

“Momentum is building in support of our call for systematic testing to safely re-open borders without quarantine measures. ICAO, working with health authorities and industry, has produced a high-level framework. Health authorities are beginning to explore how testing could supersede quarantine to stop the cross-border spread of the virus. Encouraging results from testing pilot programs should now give states the confidence to move forward quickly.

“Data show that systematic testing can reduce the risk of importing Covid-19 through travel to very low levels, not zero, but very low. Certainly in most cases it would reduce risk to levels that mean that arriving passengers are less likely to be infected than the local population and therefore do not add meaningfully to the prevalence of Covid-19 in most places. Efficiency will increase. Advances in technology are happening every day that will improve testing performance.

"Our mindset must be focused on managing the risks of the virus while maintaining the overall well-being of the population. That would be a shift from current government policies entirely focused on risk elimination until a vaccine is available and at any cost to people’s lives and livelihoods. Even with recent encouraging news, it will be well into 2021 before we can expect large scale vaccination. In the meantime, denying people the freedom of mobility will do irreparable damage to jobs and our way of life.

”Strategies with risk-based testing offer a pathway which can safely facilitate an economic revival benefitting from the rewards of a re-connected world. Governments could further reduce the risk by investing in effective contact tracing and health monitoring programs to quickly isolate any potential community transmission. And there could even be benefits to controlling the disease by large scale testing of travellers who are not displaying symptoms.”

Certainly IATA’s view seems to be supported by those who travel regularly. An IATA survey revealed that 83% of people surveyed would not travel if it required quarantine. It also showed that some 88% of travellers would be willing to be tested if it enabled travel. The same survey also revealed that 65% believe that quarantine should not be necessary if someone tests negative for Covid-19.

The global carriers have been pushing for worldwide standards to convert the many testing pilots and ‘bubbles’ into a global re-start of international flying. To support this IATA is developing:

  • A practical implementation guide for the Manual on Testing and Cross Border Risk Management Measures
  • The IATA Travel Pass to manage Covid-19 test certifications, one of several solutions in development to help manage testing certifications. IATA says it welcomes the evolution of a competitive market for these solutions that should be cost-effective, global, accurate and interoperable

The airlines say that implementation of a globally harmonised systematic testing regime for international travel would complement measures already well-established to keep travellers safe. In June, ICAO published Take-off: Guidance for Air Travel through the Covid-19 Public Health Crisis which calls on governments to implement a multi-layered approach to sanitary measures throughout the travel process.

They conclude mask-wearing is especially key to the Take-off requirements, claiming evidence via a strong consensus among recently published studies of air travel and Covid-19 pointing toward the very low risk of inflight transmission. IATA cites two studies from Harvard and TRANSCOM), and reading these that viewpoint is not it, has to be said, a view derived from them and accepted by all. Undeterred de Juniac concludes:

“Public opinion supports Covid-19 testing. They see it as a far better option compared to quarantine which kills travel. And they feel comfortable that if you are tested and found negative you don’t need to quarantine. Safety is at the core of aviation. This crisis has only reinforced that commitment. There has been an inspiring effort by governments, public health authorities and aviation entities to ensure safe operations even during this pandemic.

”ICAO’s Take-off guidelines are practical measures to deliver a safe public health environment from check-in to arrival. And the many advances on testing, including ICAO’s guidance, are what is needed to open borders while minimising the risk of Covid-19 importation.”

Photo: Empty airports and PPE tell their own story. (Image courtesy of the BP Blog)