Monday January 18, 2021

Pre-flight Covid tests, a solution for a struggling sector?

Published : 27 Nov 2020, 21:51

  By Jorge Dastis, EFE -EPA

A passenger takes a rapid antigen test before boarding a plane at Vienna's international airport. Photo: EFE.

Covid-tested flights, whereby passengers take rapid antigen tests before boarding a plane, is Austrian Airlines and Vienna’s international airport's proposal for overcoming the almost insurmountable travel restrictions in place around the world due to the pandemic.

The airline sector has been battered by coronavirus restrictions. In October, the number of travelers passing through the airport in the Austrian capital was 80% lower than the previous year.

The idea is simple.

A prospective passenger will be warned before purchasing tickets that the flight they wish to take is “Covid-19 tested” and they will have to arrive with a little extra time to get a free rapid antigen test at check-in.

The results are revealed within 15 minutes. If they come back negative for Covid-19, the passenger can proceed to the departure gate.

At the moment, this system is only in place for Austrian Airlines flights between Vienna and Hamburg, in Germany, but the airline wants to extend it to more routes in the future.

One issue at the moment is that the antigen test is not currently accepted as a replacement for the PCR test, which is required by the majority of European countries. Vienna International Airport believes the regulation could yet change on a European level in the future.

“The idea is, of course, on a mid-term pace, to change the PCR regulation for an antigen test,” Peter Kleeman, an airport spokesman, told Efe.

“Right now you still have to follow the PCR regulations which are from the local authorities, but our idea would be to change from the PCR testing to antigen testing because with antigen testing you could test many more people.”

He added that the pilot project demonstrated to other airlines and the European Commission that safe travel was possible despite the pandemic and called on Brussels to adopt unified strategies on testing and travel.

Austrian Airlines and the airport said not one passenger has tested positive so far in the process.

This is not the first time Austrian Airlines, a member of the Lufthansa group, has used antigen tests at Vienna airport.

Between 23 October and 8 November, it used a similar platform for flights between Vienna and Berlin, although on that occasion the tests were voluntary.

This time around the “Covid-19 tested” flights only permit travelers who test negative with the antigen test or with a PCR test taken no more than 48 hours before boarding. The airline has noticed an uptick in the number of passengers opting to get tested at check-in.

Tanja Gruber, an Austrian Airline spokeswoman, said during the first trial 25% of passengers took the antigen test on offer at the airport compared to 70% now, with the remaining 30% bringing a PCR result instead.

“We would like to extend the antigen tests to more and more flights,” she said.

Although a vaccine against Covid-19 appears to be on the horizon, the spokesman for Vienna International Airport insisted that solutions to travel restrictions were required now.

“We are also looking very optimistically towards the vaccine but it may take some time until a vaccine is really reaching that widespread distribution within the population,” Kleeman said.

“What we need now is a very fast solution to make flight travel possible again.”