Back to normal flight operations with rapid antigen tests? At least, that's the motto. Get to know more about the tested flights of Austrian.
Austrian Airlines Tested Flights
Even after more than half a year, the Corona crisis still affects our everyday life and the aviation industry in particular. The number of infections continues to rise and one travel warning chases the other. Even though our strict hygiene measures and the on-board ventilation system ensure the highest possible level of protection, there is still a lack of trust and a system that guarantees carefree travel and safety. For this reason, Austrian Airlines, in close cooperation with the Lufthansa Group and Vienna International Airport, has launched the pilot project "Tested Flights". The first successful phase was completed at the beginning of November 2020.
In the second phase, the test strategy has now been integrated on selected Austrian Airlines flights between Vienna and Hamburg to verify the long-term use of COVID-19 rapid antigen tests in the travel chain.
In the following interview, Peter Kleemann (Spokesman of Vienna International Airport), Julian Jäger (Member of the Management Board of Vienna International Airport) and Jens Ritter (Chief Operating Officer of Austrian Airlines) show how they want to implement all of these measures, explain what a rapid antigen test actually looks like and reveal the concrete objectives of the testing strategy.
Summarised in brief: How does the rapid antigen test work?
The Test Lane at Vienna International Airport
At the beginning of the test lane each passenger shows his boarding card. Once this boarding card is scanned, the passenger receives his personal test kit, which is digitally linked to the boarding card. If required, the mobile phone number can also be provided so that the result can be sent directly as a text message. Next, the passenger moves on to the actual test, which is carried out by the airport's medical staff. This test only takes a few minutes and once the test has been carried out, the passenger leaves the test line and waits for the result.
What accuracy does the rapid antigen test offer?
Accuracy of Rapid Antigen Tests
The rapid antigen test focuses on the viral load and primarily detects high viral load. This means that highly infectious people who can easily spread the virus can definitely be detected by such a rapid test. This is also the main difference to the PCR test, which is a molecular test and also detects lower viral load. However, the advantage of the rapid test is the quick result. The result is available within 10 to 15 minutes, whereas a PCR test takes much more time.
The rapid test is particularly advantageous for the airport because it can be used extensively and the short evaluation time can be easily integrated into normal passenger operations. It provides fast results and therefore many people can be tested within a very short time.
What does the rapid antigen test look like?
Procedure of the Rapid Antigen Test
At the moment, testing is primarily carried out by employees of the Medical Centre at Vienna International Airport. Throat swabs are used to collect saliva samples and dilute them in a liquid. The test kit then shows whether the result is positive or negative, similar to a pregnancy test. In total, there are four steps: Take a throat swab, let the swab dilute in a liquid for two minutes, put the sample on the test strip and wait for about 15 minutes.
What are the motives behind this project?
Motives for the Testing Strategy
So far, unfortunately, politicians have been hesitant with regard to the testing strategy. This measure aims to prove that it can work and to demonstrate that concrete solutions are needed. The aviation industry is currently experiencing the worst global crisis since the beginning of aviation. The crisis has hit Europe particularly hard. We are suffering from the many uncoordinated travel warnings and travel regulations. We believe that a common European test strategy may be the right way to further increase aviation security.
On the other hand, we also want to contribute to the containment of the pandemic by screening out people with a high viral load, thus trying to avoid the risk of further transmission. With this project, we want to prove that our test strategy can also be used throughout European air traffic.
I can only agree with that. As an airline, we want to break down the walls and blockades that Corona has created. We are convinced that health protection and freedom of travel can be reconciled through controlled testing and that we can also give politicians a degree of certainty. It should be a way of boosting tourism and the economy on the one hand, and of providing protection for us, the country and its people on the other. We believe in opening doors with this initiative in order to keep air travel going and to be able to expand it in times like these.
Do you think that a common European solution is inevitable?
Joint European Tested Flights
At least, we can recognise the big difference between China and Europe. All other continents and larger countries are somewhere in between. In China, international traffic is still restricted, but domestic air traffic is more or less back to pre-crisis levels. Europe is experiencing the sharpest decline of passenger numbers in the world. Why? Because Europe has literally broken up into 27 nation states and there is no common approach. In my view, there should be a common minimum set of measures within the EU.
It would be necessary to consider measures for all of those who wish to enter the Schengen area. The only way to increase demand for flights is to restore people's confidence that they can travel and return without any problems. After all, people want to travel, for all kinds of reasons.
But at the moment, it is the multitude of travel restrictions that discourages people from travelling. In our view, the widespread use of rapid tests can therefore be a first step towards restoring freedom to travel within the EU.
The test is not yet recognised. So, how safe is it?
Safety of Rapid Antigen Tests
The test increases safety because it particularly enables us to identify people with a high viral load. The so-called "superspreaders". I am convinced that aircraft are already the safest transportation mode at the moment and that this measure will make it even safer. But of course, this will not obsolete the measures at Vienna International Airport or on board.
What happens if the rapid antigen test is positive?
Positive Rapid Antigen Tests
The passengers will always be informed by a text message. If the test result is negative, the boarding pass will be activated. If it is positive, the boarding pass will not be activated and he or she will have to go to a counter in the terminal where a medical officer is waiting. The doctor will carry out an examination and will then decide what to do next. Our first test phase was on a voluntary basis. However, it will subsequently be compulsory on flights either to show a negative PCR test or to be tested negative in the test lane using the rapid antigen test.
From your point of view, when has the test strategy achieved its goal?
Objectives of the Austrian Tested Flights
The first test phase has certainly achieved its goal, as we were able to integrate the rapid antigen tests seamlessly into our travel chain. After the voluntary test phase, we have started with the mandatory tests and are now examining the application in detail. In other words: how can we ensure that we can operate a flight with mandatory testing? Both to foreign countries and back again. So the precise objectives are clear. We want to further increase safety, which is already high, and we want to reduce the travel restrictions we are currently experiencing. As a result, travelling should then become more robust and reliable again.
Do you consider extending the tests to all flights?
Extension of the Testing Strategy
I would say: step by step. With the test flights we have certainly achieved the first major milestone. This test station proves that it is basically possible to integrate rapid tests into the airport process. In the next step, we will take a closer look at the acceptance of passengers with regard to flights that are tested holistically. The third step will be to check the feasibility of the test strategy, when we are no longer talking about dozens , but hundreds or thousands of passengers per day.
This will certainly require a different logistical effort, but it is our goal to prove that it is possible to carry out these tests on a larger scale. Of course, we will then discuss an extension of these tests with the politicians.
Find Out More About the Tested Flights
Many thanks to Peter Kleemann, Julian Jäger and Jens Ritter for the detailed interview and the exclusive look behind the scenes.
Click here to learn more about the safety measures and precautions Austrian Airlines is already taking and how you can prepare yourself for your next trip in times of Corona. If you want to find out more about the test flights, please click here.
Cover picture: © Martin Steiger | Vienna International Airport