KEY POINTS

  • France plans to roll out rapid COVID testing at airports for passengers bound for international destinations and travelers arriving from other countries
  • Air travel is down 66% for this year. The percentage jumps to 92% for international travel
  • Airlines are hoping to reduce the cost of testing to $10 per passenger from $250

U.S. airlines and airports have started taking matters into their own hands to try to mitigate the damage caused to the travel industry as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, offering test kits that cost as much as $250 to enable travelers to obtain proof they're not carrying the virus so they can avoid quarantines.

“We, as an airport, aren’t just going to sit around and let this thing take us down. We’re going to do everything we can to make this better in some way,” Joe Lopano, chief executive at Tampa International in Florida, told the Wall Street Journal.

The Journal said some airlines even are considering marketing some flights as COVID-tested trips, requiring all passengers to get checked before takeoff.

But with some test results taking as much as 72 hours, a passenger could become infected in the interim. There’s also the possibility of false negatives. And at $250 a pop, it was unclear how many people would be willing to add the cost to their travels. 

Airlines are hoping to get the costs down to $10.

France plans to roll out rapid COVID testing by the end of the month to jump-start air travel, but questions still were swirling over the odds of contracting coronavirus on an airplane.

French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari told CNews television passengers bound for international destinations and arrivals from other countries where infection rates are high will be offered the tests. The tests, however, are not mandatory.

The International Air Transport Association estimates airlines have lost $84.3 billion so far this year, with demand down 66%. International travel is estimated to be down 92%. The trade association also warns failure to impose consistent guidelines threatens millions of jobs in the travel industry.

Dr. David Freedman, a U.S. infectious disease specialist, said the airline industry is misconstruing his research on contracting the disease aboard a plane. IATA, Boeing, Airbus and Embraer held a recent news conference touting the low odds on contracting the disease aboard a plane.

“With only 44 identified potential cases of flight-related transmission among 1.2 billion travelers, that’s one case for every 27 million,” IATA medical adviser Dr David Powell said in a news release.

Freedman told Reuters, however, the numbers were low because testing was lacking.

“The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” Freedman said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated last month 11,000 people may have been exposed to coronavirus aboard airplanes, citing 1,600 known cases of people flying while contagious.

The U.N. International Civil Aviation Organization is developing guidelines to help countries set up testing regimes and plans to discuss the issue at its Oct. 29 meeting. The situation also is complicated by concerns about the accuracy of rapid COVID tests.

In addition to testing IATA is recommending social distancing at the airport, touchless check-in, in-flight masks and limiting passenger movement in cabins.

Plane cabins may be lower-risk than other indoor spaces because of ventilation that sweeps pathogens into high-grade filters. Boeing said its tests indicated sitting next to an infected passenger while wearing a mask is comparable to sitting seven feet from an infected co-worker in an office. Tests by Embraer indicated 0.13% of droplets from a cough would up in an adjacent passenger’s area. That dropped to 0.2% if masks were in place.

Dr. Henry Wu, associate professor at Atlanta’s Emory School of Medicine, told Reuters, however, the Embraer results don’t mean much without knowing how much of the virus it takes to infect someone.

A study published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases indicated planes – especially long flights – can serve as staging for a superspreader event, an instance in which a single infected passenger on a flight within Australia was responsible for 64 infections.