New preflight testing programs are allowing a small number of Americans to take a European Christmas vacation this year.
On Tuesday, Delta Air Lines launched a Covid-19 testing program for customers flying from Atlanta to Amsterdam, and a second program is scheduled to begin on Saturday for Delta passengers flying to Rome.
Unlike other preflight testing programs run by American and United Airlines, the Delta programs allow passengers to bypass quarantine requirements in Europe.
Three tests to Amsterdam and four to Rome
Delta is new “Covid-tested flights” originate from Georgian Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and fly four times a week to Amsterdam and three times a week to Rome.
Passengers can avoid quarantines by testing negative for Covid-19 at different intervals before and after the flight, including:
- Five days before arrival in Amsterdam or up to 72 hours before departure to Rome (using PCR or polymerase chain reaction test)
- Before boarding the Atlanta airport (quick test)
- On landing in Amsterdam (PCR test) and Rome (rapid test)
- At the airport before returning to the USA (quick test, Rome’s program only)
Delta passengers to Amsterdam and Rome can bypass the quarantine if they perform a negative Covid-19 test at least three times and meet the EU exemptions.
Nicolas Economou | NurPhoto | Getty Images
In particular, passengers must pass two PCR tests to avoid quarantine in Amsterdam. PCR tests, also known as molecular tests, are more accurate than rapid antigen tests. However, the results may take days to process as they must be sent to a laboratory.
In a press release released on December 15, Delta said, “Once a negative result is received, customers no longer need to quarantine.” When asked how long passengers have to wait for their results, a Delta representative told CNBC’s Global Traveler, “We’d say the most [PCR tests] Take a few hours to get results. “
The Delta representative also said passengers can wait for their test results in their homes and hotels.
Passengers who have just landed on an Alitalia flight from New York will be subjected to a rapid antigen test for Covid-19 on December 9, 2020 at Fiumicino Airport in Rome.
ANDREAS SOLARO | AFP | Getty Images
Delta is talking to other governments about launching additional quarantine flights, including a connection from New York to Rome, Reuters reported this week.
The Italian national airline Alitalia launched three weekly flights on this route on December 8, which will allow passengers to avoid quarantines if they present a negative Covid-19 test taken within 48 hours of the flight or before boarding perform a quick test at the airport.
Alitalia customers departing from the US must also pass a quick test upon arrival in order to bypass Italy’s quarantine requirements.
Delta’s two preflight programs are “available to all citizens who are allowed to travel to the Netherlands or Italy for material reasons, such as work, health and education,” according to Delta’s website.
Americans have been prevented from joining the European Union since their external borders were closed in March last year. The US was not on a list of countries that were allowed to enter the EU from July 1st. That list has since shrunk as countries struggled to contain coronavirus outbreaks within their borders.
However, some travelers may enter the EU through exemptions, including those who have “an essential role or need” such as health professionals and researchers, diplomats, military personnel, humanitarian workers and passengers traveling for compelling family reasons, others.
The airlines aren’t waiting for vaccines
Although vaccines are expected to help mend the ragged global travel industry over the next year, airlines aren’t waiting.
“The arrival of a vaccine is fantastic news, but it will be some time before it becomes available worldwide,” said Perry Cantarutti, Delta senior vice president. “That’s why we’ve worked tirelessly with the authorities and our partners to design travel corridors that will allow air traffic to resume safely.”
Steve Sear, Delta’s executive vice president of global sales, said the company is focused on testing to revitalize travel.
“Carefully developed Covid-19 testing protocols are the best way to continue international travel safely and without quarantine until vaccinations are widespread,” he said.
Covid flight risk? It depends who you ask
Delta is working with consultants from the Mayo Clinic to implement the Rome preflight testing program and security standards for international flights.
“Based on the modeling we’ve done, by combining test protocols with multiple layers of protection, including mask requirements, adequate social distancing and environmental cleansing, we can predict the risk of Covid-19 infection – on a flight of 60% full – should be almost one to one A million, “said Henry Ting, Mayo Clinic’s chief value officer.
Airlines have increased visible cleaning standards on flights to reassure people who are nervous about flying during the pandemic.
Andrew Matthews | PA pictures | Getty Images
During the pandemic, the aviation industry tried to raise safety standards and instill confidence in potential passengers. Various experts and companies have produced statistics on the risk of infection that differ dramatically:
1 in 4,300 based on a two-hour flight in the US with everyone wearing a mask (a study by Arnold Barnett, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
1 in 7,700 if the middle seats are vacant (Barnett, MIT)
1 in 1.7 million (Boeing)
1 in 27 million (International Air Transport Association)
The IATA number was based on 44 known or suspected cases of in-flight Covid-19 transmission among around 1.2 billion passengers this year, a statistic published by US infectious disease specialist Dr. David Freedman, known as “bad math”.
“One point two billion passengers in 2020 is not a fair denominator as hardly anyone has been tested. How do you know how many people have actually been infected?” he told Reuters. “The absence of evidence is not evidence of the absence.”
IATA cited an article co-authored by Freedman in the Journal of Travel Medicine to support their data. However, the September 25 article acknowledges that “US-CDC has reported 1,600 cases on US flights and 11,000 contacts within two lines, but has not yet published estimates for in-flight transmission” – a situation that “may be partly related to the current situation, economic or political circumstances.”
At the end of the article, Freedman called the lack of a large number of confirmed in-flight Covid-19 transmissions “encouraging but … not definitive evidence that fliers are safe”.