While U.S. Senators push legislation mandating that the TSA do temperature checks at airports, even though this does nothing to identify asymptomatic or presymptomatic virus spreaders or people with Covid-19 who do not have a fever, the rest of the world is passing us by.
Marriott’s CEO endorses ‘hygiene theater’ to bring back travelers when there are things we could do to promote an actually safe travel experience.
Right now what’s holding back travel is a fear of the virus.
- People might be exposed when they travel
- When they get where they’re going, there may not be much reason to be there because other people are afraid of getting the virus or because of government restrictions. Offices are closed, limiting business travel. People won’t attend events, limiting networking value. Bars are closed and so are many tourist attractions.
- Regime uncertainty, the rules around travel keep changing. It may be possible to go somewhere today, but entry restrictions could change between the time you buy your ticket and when you plan to travel. Or rules for quarantining upon return could be added even while you’re gone.
This could be solved with widespread testing and verification. Helsinki airport is running a trial with Covid-sniffing dogs, following an earlier trial in Dubai. The dogs checked sweat samples and correctly identified Covid positive passengers 90% of the time, based on PCR test verification.
Meanwhile a self-service spit test will be trialed in two European airports and Lufthansa is working to deploy Roche antigen tests. Though Lufthansa has already received a government bailout, unlike many airlines they aren’t delaying testing while trying to get their government to pay for it.
My own preferred solution extends far beyond airports. Cheap, at home strip tests (think of something similar to a pregnancy test) that identify whether or not you’re Covid-positive. The primary obstacle to cheap daily at home testing isn’t technology, it’s the FDA. Set this up to read results through an app, and the app could become your passport not just to travel but also bring back indoor activities.
Imagine that your favorite local restaurant required diners to show a negative test through this app in order to enter the premises. They could give all of their guests confidence that it’s highly likely no one inside has the virus, and that it’s a safe environment. People could dine indoors safely, and they’re return because they’d know it’s safe (as long as they trusted the business to deliver on the promise to only admit people who presented negative).
Passengers would feel confident returning to air travel knowing that it’s highly likely other passengers were negative, because they’d all been screened. Quarantines wouldn’t be necessary on arrival. And borders could be opened as well, though some countries might still wish to do cheap testing on arrival or employ Covid-sniffing dogs, while employing testing for those the dogs suspected were positive. Offices could open, too, although many of us would probably still work from home.
Back in the spring Paul Romer did the math that the whole country could re-open safely with 25 million tests per day. I didn’t think we’d ever have that much capacity (most days today testing volume in the U.S. runs between 650,000 and 800,000 reported tests). But new technologies make it possible to scale testing beyond even this threshold, even if results won’t report to the government and wouldn’t be included in all official statistics anyway even if they were since many states only report PCR test results.
You may not like this world, where you’re required to use an app to go to a restaurant or fly, but these are all voluntary activities and the requirement would be imposed by individual businesses. The risk really comes when a requirement is standardized by the government (having the TSA do temperature checks versus the airlines, or a federal mask mandate – while today a two year old who cannot wear a mask can still fly Delta). Though I suspect it’s likely that all international airlines would adopt this plan if governments used it as a way to re-open borders, and domestic airlines if states used it as a way to relax quarantine rules.
IATA wants systematic testing to bring back travel. I don’t think airport testing is a good idea because it brings large numbers of people to the airport (indoors, potentially crowded) before they even know if they have the virus. Airlines requiring app-based reporting of home strip tests screens out most infected passengers prior to arriving at the airport, so is even safer. Of course we could all just take the prophylactic nasal spray that’s entering clinical trials…