WestJet and Vancouver International Airport (YVR) have announced a pre-flight rapid Covid-19 testing trial, in partnership with the University of British Columbia (UBC), with the aim of helping to develop safe air travel protocols during the pandemic.
Unlike other testing programs underway at Calgary International Airport (YYC), which intend to help immediately reduce quarantine times for international travelers, the YVR trial is designed more as a research and data collection project which will help to inform effective health screening efforts at airports over the coming months.
Rapid Antigen Tests Could Prove Useful
Under the YVR program, WestJet will offer British Columbians on domestic flights from Vancouver the opportunity to take a rapid antigen test on arrival at the airport and before travel.
If the test result is negative, passengers will be permitted to board the plane following established COVID-19 health protocols. If they return a positive test, passengers will not be allowed to travel and will be required to take further health screening measures to confirm their COVID-19 status. Those testing positive will be allowed to rebook or cancel their flight for themselves and all members of their booking party at no extra cost.
The WestJet trial aims to test between 1000-1,200 passengers over the next three months, providing vital information about the ability of airports and airlines to offer rapid testing to their customers and ensure COVID-free flights during the pandemic.
The trial has so far run smoothly, successfully testing 32 people. According to YVR president and CEO Tamara Vrooman “So far the results have been really positive — not only positive in the fact that we’ve identified no COVID, but also positive in terms of the process itself”.
The rapid antigen test is a different method of screening for COVID-19 from those that have been used in other trials. Like those tests, it also involves taking a nasal swab of the participant, but importantly it can provide results in just 20-30 minutes, making it one of the fastest COVID-19 testing options available. This could make it a much more convenient option for travelers during the pandemic, with the pilot testing programs at YYC taking up to 48 hours to deliver results in contrast.
Rapid antigen tests have already been trialled by other airlines, including Alitalia and Lufthansa, with the aviation industry seeing them as a potentially cheap and quick way to screen passengers before travel.
WestJet has been leading the way with testing trials for travelers in Canada, having already established similar programs for passengers flying from Calgary to destinations like Hawaii, and also with their pilot program to shorten the quarantine for returning passengers back into Canada.
Efficient and accurate health screening will likely be crucial to the aviation sector’s recovery as it looks to ensure safe travel while the pandemic continues.
On the downside, rapid antigen tests do carry a higher risk of false-negative results than other tests, such as the molecular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests which are being used for the WestJet trials at YYC.
The YVR trial will therefore be important in establishing the ability of rapid antigen tests to accurately provide positive results and be an effective way of screening passengers for COVID-19.
Testing Essential For Future Of International Travel
The recent focus on launching COVID-19 testing trials by airlines in Canada and worldwide reflects the recognition by the aviation industry that new health protocols will be required for travel following the pandemic.
Travel restrictions are still in place across the world as countries seek to limit the spread of the virus, and so in order for international tourism to recover the aviation industry is developing ways for passengers to prove their COVID-negative status.
At present, the use of pre-flight and on-arrival tests appears to be the best way to ensure passengers are COVID-free and can avoid lengthy quarantine periods at the start and end of their vacations. A number of airlines including Delta Airlines and British Airways are attempting to establish COVID-free international air corridors to encourage safe travel during the pandemic.
It’s possible that pre-flight COVID-19 testing may be combined with other ideas being developed to revitalise the travel industry, for example the use of digital health passes which prove a passenger’s negative status or their inoculation against the virus once a vaccine is available.
In any case, it is likely that testing will become a lasting feature of international travel going forward, particularly as vaccine availability and take-up is likely to vary considerably worldwide.
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