Testing times – is paying for a PCR swab test on arrival worth it to get businesses flying again and avoiding quarantine? Is the price low enough to become of real value for the travel industry?

21 August, 2020

PCR swab testing on arrival is already a reality at many airports around the world. Istanbul, Dubai, Paris CDG, Tokyo Haneda, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Vienna and many more have already got the system up and running and being hailed a great success in stopping the coronavirus getting into their countries.

London Heathrow Airport CEO John Holland-Kaye has this week announced that the airport now has a testing facility up and running at Terminal 2 and will have another ready at Terminal 5 by the end of August. More than 13,000 passengers can be tested in a day, which can be scaled up depending on demand.

At the moment it is generally believed that a single test is not accurate enough and be prone to false readings and virus incubation, but together with a second test that passengers undertake at home it could be sufficient to release passengers from the 14 day quarantine currently imposed on those arriving from high risk countries.

Mr Holland-Kaye said: “Testing will not only avoid the ‘quarantine roulette’ that so many passengers faced in Spain and France, it will also open up flights to key trading partners such as the US, Canada and Singapore. The government’s own research shows that a double test has a high level of accuracy in screening for Covid”. He describes the new Heathrow facility as “an oven-ready opportunity to see how Britain can safely reopen for business, as other countries are doing”.

With more countries likely to be added to the UK’s high risk list any day, Mr Holland-Kaye is urging the UK government to act quickly to agree that the testing will permit arriving passengers to be released from the 14 day quarantine requirement.

The cost of the UK test on arrival is GBP150 (EUR166) with a result ‘within hours’ but other airports have priced differently and are subject to change. In Istanbul the price is around USD16 and they promise to get the results back in two hours and have an hourly capacity of 2000 tests. Germany offer free tests to those arriving from high risk countries, but for those arriving from low risk countries they are charging EUR59 for a six hour service and EUR139 for an express service that provides a result within three hours. Brussels has similar costs and Vienna is charging EUR120. Paris CDG is currently offering free compulsory tests for passengers from 16 high risk countries.

It’s a confused picture with countries changing their rules on a fairly regular basis which means travellers cannot be sure if they need to have a test 72 hours before departure or have one on arrival – or perhaps both – and whether they are travelling from a high or low risk country. Travellers certainly need to be prepared to get tested on arrival and pay the price charged, something that businesses would certainly accept to free staff from quarantine.

Interestingly, International Air Transport Association (IATA) medical advisor Dr David Powell has said that the association does not support “across-the-board mandatory testing” but that if testing can be used to help avoid quarantines for those higher risk countries, then “we certainly support and advocate for that concept”.

London Heathrow has teamed up with Collinson and Swissport to create its testing facility. A recent survey of 22,000 frequent flying Priority Pass members undertaken by Collinson found that nearly 71% are ready to return to travel either immediately or within the next 3-6 months, but unpredictable factors such as quarantines and border controls represent their top concern about returning to air travel. Nearly half of travellers indicated they are willing to pay for a Covid-19 test to help ease travel restrictions.

But what is the right price of testing and does it matter if it helps to get everyone back in the air and give the travel industry the boost it so needs. What price are you willing to pay to have the comfort of knowing you do not carry the virus and do not need to quarantine for 14 days?