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Air Canada Airport COVID-19 Testing Trial Shows Promising Results

An Air Canada 737MAX. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Katie Bailey)

In September Air Canada partnered with a Canadian lab and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority to test arriving passengers for COVID-19 using a polymerase chain reaction test at Toronto’s Pearson Airport directly upon their arrival and then two tests that would be self-collected at seven days after arrival and at 14 days after arrival.

This was part of a broad study to understand if a 14-day quarantine was really necessary for incoming international travel. This 14-day quarantine imposed by many nations across the world is considered an essential provision to help stop the spread of COVID-19 since it’s generally believed the virus has an incubation period of up to two weeks.

Needless to say, this is really hurting airlines, it’s really not feasible for business or leisure traffic if the travel is subject to quarantine for 14 days in each direction.

Reducing 14-Day Quarantines

Airlines have been arguing that more testing should replace the 14-day quarantine. The reasoning is that by looking at the incidence of positive results from tests performed on days seven and 14 one could evaluate the probability of the average passenger testing positive for COVID-19 in subsequent tests if their initial test upon arrival is negative.

For example, if health officials could calculate with a high degree of certainty that someone who tests negative on Day 0 and then again Day 7 probably won’t test positive on Day 14. They could carry on without needing to quarantine as long as they continue with health measures like wearing a mask and social distancing.

Well, there is some initial data from that study that Air Canada and partners ran. The program conducted 13,000 tests of returning passengers and had a positivity rate of less than 1 percent. Of this one percent that tested positive, 80 percent of the cases were identified upon arrival, the remainder were identified on the second test seven days after arrival, and none were identified on the final test 14 days after arrival.

The airline found this data promising, it could mean that quarantines could be shortened making it easier for travel to resume. Rapid testing and improved contact tracing could really help with encouraging people to travel since the 14-day quarantine is a significant deterrent to travel.

Several European aviation commissions are looking into the idea as well as the aviation industry in Europe deals traffic dropping over two thirds to three quarters. Though some are taking it a bit further by proposing the replacement of quarantines with testing prior to departure and the creation of travel bubbles.

It’s Not Entirely Risk-Free

While is this encouraging data there still two key intertwined parts that aren’t being mentioned. The principle here is that people will be compliant throughout the 14-day period but there really is no guarantee they will do that. Countries with strict mandatory quarantines have done the best with handling COVID-19. The second thing to mention is the presence of “super spreaders”. It’s been well established that these superspreaders can be deadly. In South Korea, one person attending a church gathering was responsible for an outbreak of thousands of cases.

Airlines are primarily looking out for their business. It makes sense they’d try to cut down on quarantine times. However, health officials making these decisions about quarantine periods need to carefully weigh the pros and cons since there is still a significant risk of even letting a single COVID-19 infected person out into the public.

Hemal Gosai


  • Hemal Gosai

    Hemal took his first flight at four years old and has been an avgeek since then. When he isn't working as an analyst he's frequently found outside watching planes fly overhead or flying in them. His favorite plane is the 747-8i which Lufthansa thankfully flies to EWR allowing for some great spotting. He firmly believes that the best way to fly between JFK and BOS is via DFW and is always willing to go for that extra elite qualifying mile.

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