British Airways has said it will test passengers for the novel coronavirus on some transatlantic flights in a bid to make the United Kingdom scrap its quarantine policy for passengers arriving in Britain.
At the moment, international travellers coming into the country must self-isolate for 14 days due to the coronavirus pandemic, except they are coming from a country, territory, or region on the ‘travel corridors’ list.
Passengers arriving into the UK from Nigeria also have to undergo the two-week isolation exercise. International commercial flights resumed in Abuja and Lagos on September 5, following a postponement from the original date of August 29.
From London Heathrow airport, British Airways offers daily non-stop flights to Lagos in Nigeria, which has more than 65,000 coronavirus cases and over 1,100 deaths compared to Britain’s 1.41 million infections and nearly 53,000 deaths.
The government is expected to slash the required time for self-isolation to about a week after the second UK lockdown ends in December but BA chief executive Sean Doyle says that is not enough for air travel to return to the levels they were in 2019.
The British carrier, along with other leading airlines, wants the quarantine policy dropped in favour of testing. It will start a voluntary testing trial on November 25 on select flights to London from New York, Dallas, and Los Angeles, in collaboration with partner American Airlines. Under its scheme, travellers will be tested thrice – 72 hours before departure, on arrival at the London airport, and three days later.
Though passengers will still be required to follow existing quarantine rules even if they test negative all three times. BA wants to show the government pre-departure testing can work in place of self-isolation. Meanwhile, those who test positive for the virus will be able to reschedule their travel free of charge. Other carriers are expected to join the scheme and British Airways has said it will share the results with the UK and U.S. governments.
“Without a pre-flight testing regime, we will be locked in a stop-start cycle where consumers are unclear about what the rules of the game are, and won’t be in a position to travel with confidence,” Doyle said, adding that the UK is being “left behind” as countries such as Germany adopt testing to replace quarantine measures.
Transatlantic flights are key to the success of British Airways, which has been particularly exposed to the collapse in air travel between the UK and the United States. Before the pandemic, BA and American Airlines would normally fly between 80 to 111 flights a week from London to New York, but this has dropped to around 14 to 21.
The move by the British airline is one in many that industry players have introduced to help gather data that would convince regulators to scrap travel restrictions, which have reduced passenger numbers and hit the industry severely amid the pandemic.
Travel had started picking up when the Covid-19 infections slowed down but the earlier recovery began showing signs of stalling during September. Data from the International Air Transport Association show that the global demand for air travel for the month, measured in revenue passenger kilometres, was 72.8% below September 2019 levels while the number of seats deployed by airlines was down 63%.
“Even though the rebound in global economic activity continued in September, new outbreaks and further restrictions – in particular in Europe – have put some pressure on passenger traffic. This explains the moderation in the pace of the recovery this month,” the industry lobby said in its Air Passenger Market Analysis for September 2020, released earlier this month.
Coupled with quarantine rules, renewed movement restrictions in the wake of new coronavirus infections have only further constrained the demand for travel. And while the recent news about potential coronavirus vaccines is “great” according to Doyle, he cautions that it should not get in the way of dealing with the issues that should be handled at the moment.
“The vaccine is great news and we are encouraged by that. But the details of when it is rolled out, to what scale and when it will have a material effect on travel is unclear,” the BA chief said. “It is obvious we need a solution in the short term to get travel going again.”