Travel Testing May Be Ending, but Airline Health Safety Measures are Here to Stay

The UK government has announced that from 11th February, fully vaccinated passengers arriving into the country will no longer have to take COVID-19 tests on arrival. The news follows the removal of pre-departure testing for fully vaccinated UK-bound passengers this month. 

The relaxation of testing measures is something the aviation industry has been actively campaigning for, as it removes barriers to travel. Just today, IATA distributed a press release advocating for similar moves to be made by further governments. It cited a study focused on the UK carried out by Oxera and Edge Health which found that because Omicron is now highly prevalent in the UK, “if all travel testing requirements were removed there would be no impact on Omicron case numbers or hospitalizations.”

Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General, commented, “It is clear that travel restrictions in any part of the world have had little impact on the spread of COVID-19, including the Omicron variant.”

During a panel session hosted by SimpliFlying’s CEO Shashank Nigam at APEX EXPO last December, this was a topic covered by WestJet’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tammy McKnight. McKnight claimed that travel restrictions buy countries around two weeks before new variants begin spreading, something that only matters if hospitals are already under severe pressure due to the number of COVID-19 cases.

She continued, “As the pandemic evolves, I hope we move to a more science-based approach where once we get vaccination levels to where they need to be, we think about whether testing still has a role. I think we’re getting close to that point.” 

While this may be the case for the global North, such as the US, Canada and Europe, SimpliFlying has identified during one of its recent whitepapers – Seven Predictions on the Future of Air Travel – that in the global South, where vaccine levels remain significantly lower, that testing is likely to remain a fixture of air travel for longer. 

This is where industry collaboration comes into play. Nigam mentioned that during RwandAir’s APEX Health Safety powered by SimpliFlying audit, the carrier shared that it vaccinated every staff member at its Kigali International Airport hub, whether they were Rwandair employees or not. When the panel discussed what airlines could do with a billion dollars of aid, Nigam said, “If I had a billion dollars, I would supply vaccines to developing countries so the risk of new variants decreases. Ultimately, the entire industry benefits because it will help rebuild trust in travel.”

Whatever travel testing rules, or lack thereof, passengers encounter during their travels, Nigam, McKnight and Dr. Stathis Kefallonitis, neuroscientist and professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, all agreed that the strong presence of health safety measures are here to stay in the long-term because they help passengers to feel confident about flying. 

“At airlines we’ve set the bar very high, and so there’s going to be an expectation from our guests moving forward that we continue to keep them safe. I think enhanced cleaning is here to stay in some form or the other, it’s something that’s very tangible for guests to see,” predicted McKnight. 

She also mentioned biosafety and biosecurity, including the presence of track and trace processes and vaccine passports, as something that will remain as long as there’s a threat posed by the pandemic. “I think once that ends, you might get more pushback from passengers around privacy, but for now it’s here to stay.”

Nigam added that from a visibility perspective, the presence of Chief Medical Officers was highly reassuring.

“I think having a Chief Medical Officer is something that every airline should be doing. They should be media trained, and they should be put out in front of customers. That inspires trust,” he argued.

Away from the health safety responses immediately related to the pandemic, McKnight and Kefallonitis were also very clear that airlines should take a more holistic approach to the wellbeing of both passengers and staff moving forward.

Kefallonitis expanded, “Emotionally, we’re all experiencing fatigue … and the longer we are in a stressful situation, the more effect this has on our mental health, to the point that a lot of people withdraw from even thinking about travelling. Obviously this is not something we want to see in our industry. So it’s really important to start looking deeper into the emotional and behavioural effects that things have on our industry instead of this constant process of action and reaction.”

With this in mind, it seems like the end of strict travel testing regimes can’t come soon enough. 

Find out more about how 18 of the world’s leading airlines are approaching health safety in our 2021 Airline Health Safety Yearbook. Download it now

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