Even with coronavirus vaccines, airport testing is here for the long haul

A Covid-19 testing site at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport on Nov 24, 2020. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - Even as the race to approve and distribute Covid-19 vaccines is entering its final stretch, parts of the travel industry are sprinting to a different finish line: airport testing.

In hubs large and small, from JFK to Boston to Frankfurt, Germany, a variety of companies are figuring out how to scale preflight rapid and PCR Covid testing in hopes of facilitating safe air travel and lessening quarantine requirements for anyone who isn't first in line for a shot.

The leaders of that effort may come as a surprise.

In the US, it's XpressSpa, the purveyor of quickie mani-pedis and travel pillows. It's currently operational in four major US airports, with more to come in December.

In the UK, Collinson - the parent company of the Priority Pass airport lounge network - is the testing partner for London Heathrow and Virgin Atlantic, which recently began offering free tests for passengers on flights to select Caribbean destinations. This effort expanded to three additional UK airports this week.

Collinson also announced a partnership in mid-November with American Airlines, British Airways, and the Oneworld airline alliance that will bring testing to select flights and hopefully lead to the creation of an "air bridge".

In other words: Momentum is building.

"We went from concept to pilot in 75 days," says XpressSpa chief executive officer Doug Satzman of the effort's early days; the company's first Covid-19 testing facility opened at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport in June. But expanding has been slow work.

"Operating in airports is a difficult, highly complex, highly regulated environment-just getting an electrician in to fix something in your store is kind of a pain," Mr Satzman explains.

"It's been a tiring journey, I won't deny it," says Mr David Evans, co-CEO of Collinson, whose company got into the testing game due to its knowledge of airport operations and its history as a purveyor of travel insurance.

While its Heathrow effort has grown from testing 25,000 passengers per day to testing more than one million, some challenges to scaling up are hard to overcome.

Difficulties have little to do with square footage or money. Creating airport testing sites, Mr Evans says, is a low-cost proposition that can fill any empty or under-utilised space, of which there are many in airports today. It's the lack of coordinated policy around testing requirements that has thwarted any type of global (or even country-wide) expansion.

"If they rolled out a national testing mandate for air travel, we'd be there to support in as many airports as possible," adds Mr Evans, who has been lobbying vociferously for that exact approach to "get the world moving again."

Both Mr Satzman and Mr Evans think their efforts will pay off, whether they're the turtle or the hare in a race with vaccines. After all, both executives are of the mindset that airport testing will be a long-term need, relevant for at least the next two years and possibly far longer.

Mounting pressure

For both Mr Satzman and Mr Evans, providing airport testing is less a way to compensate for Covid-related losses than a means to get air travel-and therefore their core businesses-back on track.

As Mr Satzman puts it: "It's not a big money thing; it's a service you offer to let people back in so you can make money off your other businesses. "

The same could be said about Lufthansa, which in mid-November started to roll out free and rapid pre-flight testing for certain flights between Munich and Hamburg in collaboration with the German biotech firm Centogene. "Successful testing of entire flights can be the key to revitalizing international air traffic," says Ms Christina Foerster, Lufthansa Group's executive board member for customer, IT, and corporate responsibility.

There's data to support the idea that testing could reestablish consumer confidence. In a study published by the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) in October, 76 per cent of respondents said that rapid testing prior to departure-with waived quarantining requirements for those who test negative-would be the best way to open up international travel.

The barrier is a patchwork approach to entry requirements across state, regional, and international levels, and the lack of a unified system to verify results. In Hong Kong, for instance, travellers need to present a "physical, stamped, paper copy of results," says Collinson's Mr Evans; travellers to other destinations need only log into a health portal for an agent to review.

Mr Satzman doesn't see much of that changing. In the US, as in other countries, coordinated policy for airport testing would require unprecedented cooperation among agencies as wide-ranging as the Federal Aviation Administration, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

But with infections in the US reaching an all-time high, and Europe batting down its second wave, the need for testing has become more urgent. Add in the desire to make long-awaited holiday travels stick, and you have demand boiling over from passengers who are less concerned about quarantine requirements than keeping their relatives safe.

Slow and steady

Against all these odds, airport testing efforts are gaining liftoff, thanks to a few recent developments. First is the recent, increased availability of rapid tests, which have allowed companies such as XpressSpa to think a bit further outside the box. Reliability is a growing positive, too: Just this week the NFL announced that it has helped prove the concept of a rapid test that's as reliable as PCR swabs.

Then there's interest from airlines, which are seeing wide adoption of a vaccine as too far-off to suit their financial hopes.

"Airlines are the ones stringing together the air bridges," says Mr Satzman, referring to the joint participation of two destinations in a pre-approved testing requirement for entry. "They see us as a strategic partner because we're the only ones that will be in various airports."

As a result, he says XpressSpa is carrying out negotiations with nearly every major American carrier, from implementing a pilot programme that one airline hopes to roll out across all of its busiest airports to bundling the price of a required pre-flight Covid test with airfares.

The next steps, say both Mr Satzman and Mr Evans, involve creating digital passports via which results could be uploaded and accessed by airline agents and border control officials, as needed. (Imagine, for instance, not being able to board a plane unless you scanned your boarding pass and your digital health app at the gate.)

Then, Mr Satzman says, it can be time to look at the next chapter: administering vaccines in addition to tests, and providing additional services such as strep throat tests to help unwell passengers decide whether it's prudent to board a plane.

"Whether we call this XCheck or something else-whatever this turns into, I do believe it will be bigger than the XpressSpa business," Mr Satzman adds. "There's a lot to do in airports. And we're going to do it, step by step by step."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.