After a year like 2020, many would agree that they’re ready for a vacation. Lockdowns and travel restrictions in the last fifteen months have significantly affected air passenger traffic, which was down 95 percent1 at the height of the pandemic.
As vaccines become more widely distributed and restrictions begin to lift, widespread business and recreational travel is once again an option. But doing so safely and effectively will prove to be a major challenge for the airline industry.
The 2021 World Aviation Festival brought together industry leaders and experts in the field of aviation to discuss current concerns and the industry’s future. Among the week’s events were keynote interviews and expert panels, some featuring Brian Plew and Dr. James Young of Thermo Fisher.
Panel: What is the Future of Biosecurity and Contactless Journeys in a Part-Vaccinated World?
Industry leaders discussed some of the most critical current topics in aviation, including vaccine certification and testing. Most agreed that a combination of vaccines, testing, and passes will promote passenger safety, but the challenge is determining how to implement these measures.
Digital certifications, in the form of apps such as the International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s TravelPass, will likely be a critical part of the process, expediting certification approval and promoting operational efficiency as travel begins to ramp up. More than 30 airlines are currently trialing TravelPass, according to an IATA leader.
However, passenger convenience will determine whether large-scale adoption occurs. According to an executive at Lufthansa Airlines, “If we don’t achieve relevance with our customers, it will be hard to achieve usability.”
While large-scale vaccination and certification will help mitigate viral spread, Plew explained that vaccinations are intended to protect individuals from more severe reactions, not to protect the public as a whole against the viral spread.
“The requirement for testing in a state of vaccination still exists,” said Plew. “In some ways, it’s even more important because, as we’ve seen with emerging variants, needing to understand what’s going on during a vaccination campaign is more critical to understand the impact of these variants.”
Listen to Plew’s comments about the importance of testing during a vaccination campaign (0:55):
The World Travel & Tourism Council “prioritizes testing over vaccines,” said one of its leaders. So, while global travel organizations will continue to focus on testing prior to arrival, infrastructure limitations will make testing at airports difficult.
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Therefore, the responsibility currently falls largely on individual travelers to make sure they’re meeting travel requirements, a model that experts say is unsustainable. “If it’s left up to the individual, it creates all sorts of different complexities that could have passengers rejected at the border they’re going to,” Plew said.
Listen to Plew discuss the need for testing to have value to travelers (1:30):
As vaccines enable travel to ramp up, the challenge for leaders in the aviation industry will be to scale up accurate, sensitive testing and unite on testing policies that make traveling easier for passengers.
Implementing Safe Arrival Testing for Travel Destinations: Case Study in Cambodia
Dr. Erik Karlsson, Deputy Head of Virology at Institute Pasteur Cambodia Interviewed by Dr. James Young, Sr. Business Development Manager at Thermo Fisher Scientific
In this keynote interview, Karlsson discussed Cambodia’s response to the pandemic. Despite being a “hotspot for emerging and endemic diseases,” Karlsson deemed the country’s 2020 COVID response successful thanks to an early rollout of air passenger testing – even earlier than other nations.
Under Cambodia’s current policy, all incoming passengers must enter the country with certification of a negative test from their country of origin. Upon arrival, passengers are again tested then required to quarantine for 14 days before a third test.
“We’ve used Real Time PCR, which are some of the most sensitive assays we have available,” said Karlsson, who underscored accuracy as a key priority for Cambodia’s testing plan.
The country’s airline industry is currently only operating at 2 percent capacity, with approximately 1,000 passengers traveling through Phnom Penh International Airport, Cambodia’s largest airport, each day. Increasing this number will prove to be challenging as travel opens up, but Karlsson is confident in scaling up accurate testing.
“The tests we’re using have allowed us to scale up and test more and more samples every day,” he said. “I’m very hopeful that in the next 6 to 12 months we’ll see some incredible products coming to market that will allow us to test quickly in labs, maybe even within airports.”
“I’ve seen great innovation from Thermo Fisher and other companies,” Karlsson concluded. “We should be able to scale up at light speed as long as everyone works together and really innovates and uses the new technologies coming available.”
Navigating Safe Aviation Travel & COVID-19 Testing: Meeting Today & Tomorrow’s Needs
Dr. David Powell, Chief Medical Advisor, IATA Interviewed by Dr. James Young
Powell reviewed how the international community responded to COVID-19 over the past 18 months. “Everything in COVID has been a patchwork rather than any international coordination,” Powell said. “Countries have made their own decisions as quickly as they can to protect their own interests.”
These constant changes have affected the airline industry, with only half of the world’s pilots currently flying2 , and cabin crews having to quarantine upon arrival.
When asked by Young about the future, Powell said, “our focus is on travel facilitated by a combination of vaccination and testing.”
Powell believes the importance of asymptomatic infection was underestimated in the early stages of the pandemic. Powell says daily tests for high risks groups can reduce spreading the disease, and regarding travel: “It’s now realistic to do testing at the time of travel and to make the journey contingent on getting a negative result,” he said.
“We’re all globally linked. We know that now,” Powell said. “We need to look after the whole world.”
Thermo Fisher can support your organization’s COVID-19 testing efforts. As a global leader involved in more than 50% of global COVID-19 testing, we enable labs and service providers that deliver accurate, trusted results to help bring people together again. Get connected with a service provider near you.
1. “Coronavirus Air Travel: These Numbers Show the Massive Impact of the Pandemic.” Condé Nast Traveler. Posted April 13, 2020. https://www.cntraveler.com/story/coronavirus-air-travel-these-numbers-show-themassive-impact-of-the-pandemic.
2. “More than half of world’s airline pilots no longer flying – survey.” Reuters. Posted January 28, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-airlines-pilotsint/more-than-half-of-worlds-airline-pilots-no-longer-flying-survey-idUSKBN29X2B4.