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To Revive Air Travel, Bring COVID Testing to the Airport

Fear of contagion en route is keeping travelers on the ground, crushing local businesses and regional economies. Airport authorities should band together to establish on-site rapid testing.

American Airlines jets parked at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport during the height of the pandemic in April, 2020. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)
The air travel industry is on the ropes, losing billions each month. Airlines and their employees' unions are pleading for more federal aid to counter massive layoffs and potential bankruptcies. Air transport is a key driver of both the national and regional economies, and the travel slump has crushed thousands of local businesses.

The No. 1 problem for the airline industry is customer demand. The reluctance to travel often has more to do with fear of infection en route than contagion at the destination. People don't want to spend hours in airport waiting areas and then in an enclosed airborne aluminum tube with a hundred unfamiliar passengers who likely include several with COVID-19. From the parking-deck elevator to check-in to baggage claim to the rental car counter, the entire journey breaks every rule of social distancing.

For that reason, a few domestic airlines are beginning to offer their own rapid-results COVID-19 testing, most notably for flights to Hawaii, where arrivals are otherwise quarantined. But the costs for those tests are too prohibitive for widespread roundtrip use by economy travelers.

To avoid a deepening industrywide slump, it's clearly in the interest of everyone — including passengers, the airlines and their employees, the airports, tourism and other travel-related businesses, and even the federal taxpayers — to devise a solution. That solution is rapid centralized on-site pre-flight testing for COVID-19. The challenges are who pays for it and how, who will secure rapid-testing supplies at scale, and where to install screening stations at the airports.

Why would we need this once vaccines become available? After all, certified vaccination recipients would presumably be allowed to bypass testing. But vaccination alone will not cure this industry's problem in 2021 or even 2022. Public skepticism about vaccines' efficacy and safety is so rampant that consumer confidence in air travel will still be grounded. "Either-vaccination-or-testing" is obviously a potential second-stage solution, but we need to start immediately along the rapid-testing path.

This isn't a job for the airlines, which would likely face antitrust curbs on uniform pre-flight testing, but airports can do the job. Most U.S. airports are municipal operations, many of them legally organized as special districts or authorities in order to float the bond issues required to build facilities that ultimately are funded through user fees. By default, the most sensible, pragmatic solution is a voluntary collaboration by the airport authorities, guided by their industry association. Just as the NBA created an anti-COVID-19 "bubble" for its playoffs, so could the airports via coordinated nationwide best practices. Since passengers arriving from non-compliant airports could face state-level quarantines, there would be inducements for 100 percent participation.

As to who pays: Airports already charge various fees to the airlines, some of them embedded in air carriers' costs and others detailed in the ticket prices. For airlines unwilling to accommodate an airport COVID-19 screening surcharge, the screening station could provide passengers with point-of-sale credit card processing. Those with tickets showing that they have either prepaid their screening fee or who produce a vaccine certificate (either paper or digital) can move to the head of the line, and savvy passengers will quickly adapt.

Private-sector technology can be leveraged: The existing nationwide airport CLEAR system could help cut wait times. With its new vaccine data ecosystem for states and localities, Salesforce looks to have already built a digital cloud backbone, expandable to include a secure vaccination registry that airport checkpoints could access. And Israeli and British companies recently unveiled almost instant airport tests that could be game-changers.

Wherever the rapid tests come from, an obvious hurdle is securing enough of them. Despite White House ballyhoo and the increasing availability of rapid tests, the federal deployment has been plagued with the all-too-familiar confusion and lack of planning, so it may come to the governors to band together to ensure supplies. With states in the Northeast restricting arrivals from hot zones, they would be the natural leaders for such a collaborative effort.

There are operational hurdles to clear, and they are not trivial: Tickets must be refundable for passengers who are bounced from their flights because they test positive, and their pre-checked luggage retrieval could be messy. Screening stations require space. But with a couple months or so of lead time to prepare temporary facilities, the airports should be able to process flyers whose tickets were purchased prior to the new screening policies. So, realistically, we're likely looking at sometime in March for universal airport COVID-19 screening to begin, unless Congress underwrites an earlier start. But travel bookings should pick up quickly once word gets out and Americans learn to trust the airport bubble network.

The key obstacles aren't operational, however; they're political. Now that the Oval Office has endured a personal taste of the virus, maybe President Trump and his advisers and appointees will replace numbing smooth talk with decisive, concrete action. Meanwhile, nothing should stop Joe Biden's campaign from announcing now that in his first week in office he'll step up and fill the airport testing vacuum through decisive federal and public-private action.

Yet for now, such solutions reside in a parallel universe. Airlines have relied on stopgap federal aid to buy time and cover payroll, but that does nothing to stimulate demand. Absent White House leadership, the air travel industry and local economies will be far better served if airports collectively work immediately from the bottom up rather than the top down. In fact, this initiative would give Congress and taxpayers more confidence that federal aid to the industry isn't just more good money pouring after bad. Ideally, the lame-duck Congress could approve bipartisan funding for three months of free mandatory airport COVID-19 screening starting as early as January, which would prime the pump and rapidly promote confidence.

The North American airports association and the talented public-sector professionals at the airport executives' association can take the lead. With their skilled leadership on point, it's hard to imagine that there won't be politicians who rush to wangle themselves into the solution. Legions of local travel-dependent businesses, airline employees and Americans weary of cabin fever will cheer them on.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

Girard Miller is the finance columnist for Governing. He can be reached at
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