The International Air Transport Association (IATA), citing new research that the organisation itself commissioned, is urging governments around the world to accept best-in-class rapid antigen Covid-19 tests as a way to return air travel to its 2019 numbers.
Currently, the year-long coronavirus pandemic has cost airlines half their capacity compared to 2019, although that figure is slowly rising after being as low as 90% off in April of 2020.
The report — done by OXERA and Edge Health, according to IATA — cited several factors that found the rapid antigen tests to be most effective, including their accuracy, convenience and cost-efficiency.
For instance, the BinaxNOW antigen test misses just one positive case in 1,000 travellers, based on an infection rate of 1% among travellers. For those worried about false negatives, the BinaxNOW boasts comparable performance to PCR tests in this aspect.
Plus, processing times for antigen tests are 100 times faster than PCR testing, and are on average 60% cheaper too.
For a family of four travelling from the UK to the the Canary Islands, this means they will take a total of 16 PCR tests at a total cost of around EUR1,850 (US$2,169) — that's a premium of 160% on top of the average airfare. Business travellers will feel the same pinch: a typical London-Frankfurt flight will incur a cost increase of 59% with the PCR test requirement.
Antigen tests will not remove the extra financial costs, but will at least reduce the burden to 30%. Already, in a February poll, IATA found that 58% said that they would travel less for leisure once the pandemic is contained, and 62% of business travellers indicated they would be flying less.
“For governments, the top priority is accuracy. But travellers will also need tests to be convenient and affordable. The OXERA-Edge Health report tells us that the best-in-class antigen tests can tick all these boxes. It’s important for governments to consider these findings as they make plans for a re-start," said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general and CEO.
More importantly, however, the tests will provide confidence to airlines, travellers and governments alike that flying is safe.
“Restarting international aviation will energise the economic recovery from Covid-19. Along with vaccines, testing will play a critical role in giving governments the confidence to re-open their borders to travellers,” added de Juniac.
Another good reason for the rapid tests – testing requirements are currently fragmented, which is confusing to travellers. Moreover, many governments do not allow rapid testing. If the only options available for travellers are PCR tests, these come with significant costs disadvantages and inconvenience.
And in some parts of the world, PCR testing capacity is limited, with first priority correctly given to clinical use.
“Travellers need options. Including antigen testing among acceptable tests will certainly give strength to the recovery,” de Juniac said. “And the EU’s specification of acceptable antigen tests offers a good baseline for wider international harmonisation of acceptable standards. We now need to see governments implement these recommendations. The goal is to have a clear set of testing options that are medically effective, financially accessible, and practically available to all prospective travelers.”
Additional reporting from Natalie Joy Lee.