As air travel becomes a new focus for COVID-19 testing, some clinical laboratories may have new partnership opportunities with airports offering testing
Airlines and airports have begun to recognize that their long-term business strategies need to accommodate travelers’ concerns about quarantine restrictions and the spread of COVID-19. As a result, airlines and airports are rethinking their current business models to potentially include clinical laboratories for SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) testing arrangements.
All of this comes after the International Air Transport Association (IATA) made a recommendation Sept. 22, 2020, that rapid and affordable COIVD-19 testing should be made available for all passengers.
“Quarantine measures are killing the industry’s recovery,” Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director and CEO told The Washington Post at the time. “Some 83% of travelers in a recent 11-market survey said that they will not travel if there is a chance of being quarantined at their destination. That is a very clear signal that this industry will not recover until we can find an alternative to quarantine.”
As the COVID-19 STAT Intelligence Briefings Service recently reported, Lufthansa, United Airlines, American Airlines, and others are announcing availability of COVID-19 testing to some passengers. The limited supplies and multiplicity of geographical locations associated with each airline, however, seemed to be limiting factors initially.
Tampa International Airport Announces COVID-19 Testing
While some airlines have begun offering limited COVID-19 testing, the air travel industry has recently seen a new, and perhaps more viable, testing model emerge. Tampa International Airport (TPA) recently announced it would offer COVID-19 testing to all travelers, allowing them to have a better understanding of their risk of transmitting COVID-19 during or following their travels.
“We’re going to build confidence on the part of the traveling public, by giving them an opportunity to have a test done right here at the airport before they get on a flight,” TPA CEO Joe Lopano said during a press conference, reported CNN Travel. “This is the only airport in the whole country that is doing these tests for anybody, going to any destination, on any airline, only TPA is doing this and we hope others will follow. Testing is the key to getting people back to travel.”
John Tiliacos, Executive Vice President of Operations and Customer Service for TPA, announced in an online news release that testing will be made available to all travelers who are flying or have flown within the last three days. “This is about taking a bold step to restarting air travel,” Tiliacos said. “This is about instilling even greater confidence in the flying public, and frankly it’s about breathing life back into our industry that is very badly needed right now.”
In Boston, Logan International Airport will offer limited pre-security screening in November, reports The Daily Free Press. Airport health and wellness company XpresSpa announced Oct. 9 it is constructing a modular testing facility with an anticipated capacity of 400 COVID-19 tests per day, according to a news release from XpresSpa.
Costs, Services, and Tests Used for Airport COVID-19 Testing Can Vary
Both PCR testing and antigen testing are available at TPA, and Tiliacos disclosed that the PCR test will cost travelers $125, while the antigen test will cost $57. According to Tiliacos, the airport has partnered with a local healthcare system, BayCare, to collect and analyze these tests.
Meanwhile, rapid molecular coronavirus tests, polymerase chain reaction tests, and blood antibody tests will be offered at Boston Logan International, according to XpresSpa. Company CEO Doug Satzman told the The Daily Free Press that the PCR and blood antibody tests will cost $75 and can be covered by insurance. Patients would pay for the $200 rapid molecular test out of pocket, with the option to contact their insurance for reimbursement.
Some airports abroad have already adopted COVID-19 testing systems and related medical lab services. For travelers, these services may range from free to $300 or more, payable on the spot in Frankfurt, Germany, for example.
In Hawaii, preflight testing using an FDA-approved nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT) from a CLIA (Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments)-certified lab for COVID-19 began Oct. 15, 2020, according to the state’s Department of Transportation and its Safe Travels resources.
The Honolulu Star Advertiser on Saturday reported, “Travelers who provide written confirmation from a state-approved COVID-19 testing partner of a negative result from a test administered within 72 hours of the final leg of departure are now allowed to bypass the quarantine. However, a post-arrival test is required for visitors to Hawaii island, who can take a free rapid test at the airport.” An estimated 1,020 passengers were tested at post-arrival, according to the Star Advertiser, and a positive test would result in a PCR nasal swab test.
For Hawaii airport entry, the sudden volume of COVID-19 testing and coordination proved difficult. “We were fortunate in the sense that all of them were negative and we didn’t have to trace for a PCR test,” Hawaii island Mayor Harry Kim told the Star Advertiser. “But it was a real mess. I can’t deny that in any stretch of the imagination.”
New COVID-19 Testing Partnership Opportunities for Clinical Laboratories
COVID-19 testing in US airports provides a unique and singular opportunity for clinical laboratories here to seek and establish partnerships with their local airports. The emerging trend of airport COVID-19 testing can provide a new source of COVID-19 tests, increasing volumes for clinical laboratories.
One of the difficulties of the testing program in Hawaii seemed to be sheer volume and the need for follow-up PCR testing. That may be a sign of what is to come with more COVID-19 testing models in travel hubs.
As air travel begins to resume, COVID-19 testing will likely be a core component of safe air travel. Most airports are still determining the feasibility of COVID-19 testing programs and services. Clinical laboratories that act now to establish partnerships—as this new opportunity is just emerging—will likely see increased COVID-19 testing volumes as a result.
—By Caleb Williams, Editor, COVID-19 STAT
XpresSpa XpresSpa Group Begins Construction of New XpresCheck COVID-19 Testing
WSJ: Can Airport Covid Testing Get People Flying Again?
CNN: Tampa International says it’s the first airport in the country to offer Covid-19 testing to all flyers
The Daily Free Press: Logan Airport to offer COVID-19 testing
Washington Post: Lufthansa to roll out rapid coronavirus testing, a move that could change pandemic air travel
Hawaii Safe Travels Program and Resources
Honolulu Star Advertiser: High passenger counts for tourism’s restart strain the airport entry process, especially on Hawaii island