Safety

Will rapid COVID testing give aviation the boost it needs?

Westjet and Vancouver International will partner with UBC on rapid COVID test trial

Preliminary test results suggest the 14-day quarantine period could be reduced

COVID testing aviation
A security guard from the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority checks temperatures at Vancouver International Airport. Temperature checks are touted as part of a range of measures to keep travellers safe (photo: Vancouver Airport Authority).

Canada’s aviation industry is increasingly turning to rapid COVID testing as a means to help restart the sector and save thousands of jobs. The industry is rolling out pilot projects and gathering data. It’s all in a bid to convince Canadians flying is safe and convince governments to end blanket travel restrictions.

“We believe testing will be key to protecting employees and customers until such time as a COVID-19 vaccine is available,” said Dr. Jim Chung, Air Canada’s Chief Medical Officer in a statement. “Rapid testing is also a means to enable governments to relax current blanket travel restrictions and quarantines in a measured way while still safeguarding the health and safety of the public.”

The pandemic, which has killed more than 1 million people around the world, has devastated air travel. The industry just suffered through what the International Air Travel Association calls its “worst-ever summer season.”

Statistics Canada reported this week that airlines carried only 800,000 passengers in July, down almost 90% from 2019. Load factors were only 41%. That has had a devastating effect on finances.

“Airline operating revenue totalled $291.9 million in July, down from $2.5 billion (-88.3%) in the same month a year earlier,” StatsCan reported.

Urgent call for government support

Those dismal financial returns saw renewed calls for government support for aviation. Three unions held a news conference Thursday in Toronto to demand $7 billion in aid.

“Canada needs to step up and support its industry like most other countries,” said Jerry Dias, Unifor’s National President. His union represents thousands of airport and airline employees. “There really is no more time to waste. We need urgent funds for the aviation sector or there won’t be Canadian airlines, and that will cost us all much more.”

The leaders of the Air Canada Pilots Association and the Airline Pilots Association joined the call. The aid would consist of loan guarantees and funding to resume or maintain air services.

The country’s airlines quickly got on board.

“There is no line of sight on when the industry will be allowed to move forward from Stage Zero as all the border and travel restrictions implemented in March are still in effect, said Mike McNaney. He’s the president of the National Airlines Council of Canada, which represents the country’s largest carriers. Stage Zero refers to severe border restrictions and quarantine periods put in place at the pandemic’s outset.

“Tens of thousands of employees have been impacted, flight capacity in the market has been reduced by approximately 85% and billions of dollars in aircraft are parked,” he said. 

Support for aviation COVID testing

Indeed, Canada has banned most foreigners from entering the country and Ottawa continues to advise against non-essential travel outside the country. Travel data reflect that reality. StatsCan said domestic demand had recovered to almost 20% what it was in January, while the number of flights has increased. International travel, meanwhile, fell off a cliff in April and has been essentially flat since then.

aviation covid tests
A graph produced by Statistics Canada showing passenger demand since January.

“This underscores the urgent need for the federal government to bring forward sectoral support, and that the certification and adoption of accurate rapid testing regimes is critical to aviation’s recovery and the tens of thousands of jobs that are dependent on travel and tourism,” said McNaney. 

The union leaders also called for governments to help pick up the tab for aviation COVID testing now in development.

“This will be key to ensuring employee and public safety going forward.” they argued.

One testing pilot project took a step forward Thursday. Vancouver International Airport and Westjet announced they would partner with the University of British Columbia. The goal will be to try a rapid COVID test at the airport and collect data to guide public health decisions.

“We hope that working with leading experts like those at UBC will help us to collect, test and act to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in conjunction with our myriad of other layered safety measures,” said Billy Nolen, WestJet Vice-President Safety, Security and Quality.

Promising preliminary results

They will work out details of the Vancouver trial in the coming weeks. One of the first steps will be to ask the travelling public if they’re willing to get a COVID-19 test at the airport.

Meanwhile, Air Canada announced what could be promising results from tests conducted at Toronto International Airport. McMaster Health Labs tested 13,000 people arriving on international flights over the past month. Passengers volunteered to give a first test at the airport and went home to quarantine. After seven days, the passengers took a follow-up test and another seven days after that.

The data show just under one per cent of travellers tested positive for COVID-19. Test detected 80% of cases at the airport, the rest within seven days of the flight. Tests did not find a single new COVID case after 14 days.

“The preliminary results suggest a shorter, test-based strategy may be an available and safe alternative to the 14-day quarantine,” said Air Canada’s Dr. Chung.

The government announced Wednesday it would extend restrictions on international travel until the end of October. The border closure covers all countries except the United States, which falls under a separate order.

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Categories: Safety