European airlines are pinning hopes on pre-flight Covid-19 tests that deliver results as fast as pregnancy tests to help restore passengers’ confidence in taking to the skies in confined spaces with shared air.
Meanwhile, former Aer Lingus and IAG chief executive Willie Walsh has said the airline industry is never going to get back to the way it was before the pandemic.
Germany’s Lufthansa, at the mercy of government bailouts for survival, is understood to be in talks with Swiss drugmaker Roche over deploying so-called antigen tests, as the airline aims to make them available next month.
Italian operator Alitalia, meanwhile, will add two flights from Milan to Rome, to the two it is already offering from Rome to Milan, exclusively for passengers with negative tests.
The tests are administered by health authorities at the airports and included in ticket prices. If they prove popular and safe, these antigen-tested flights will be expanded to more domestic, and later international, routes, the airline said.
Unlike laboratory-based molecular tests that have been the staple of health authorities in the pandemic, antigen tests do not require machines to process. Much like pregnancy tests, they can produce results in about 15 minutes.
However, the tests require an uncomfortable nasal swab and are not as accurate as the molecular, or PCR, tests. They generally produce more “false negatives” which could mean sick people could slip through the cracks and onto planes.
An increasing number are hitting the market, from companies such as Abbott Laboratories, Becton Dickinson, Quidel and Roche, which is rebranding antigen tests from South Korea’s privately held SD Biosensor.
Airlines are pressing governments to embrace alternatives to blanket travel restrictions amid a resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe.
Rapid antigen tests that can be administered by non-medical staff are expected to become available in the coming weeks for as little as $7 each, the head of industry body the International Air Transport Association said.
Despite the drawbacks of such antigen tests, carriers hope they could tip the balance in convincing people to fly.
Willie Walsh, who earlier this month stood down as CEO of Aer Lingus and British Airways owner IAG, said the airline industry will be smaller but more efficient in the future.
“It’s never going to get back to the way it was,” he said.
But striking a positive note, Mr Walsh said that airlines should take comfort from the fact that there was still demand for travel.
“People are comfortable getting on-board. What they’re uncomfortable about is the uncertainty as to whether they’re going to have to quarantine when they get to their destination or when they return from their destination. That’s really what’s undermining customer confidence,” he said.