When was the last time you traveled on an airplane for work?
For frequent business travelers, that answer has likely stretched longer than any period in recent memory. Since the pandemic first wreaked havoc on airline routes and scheduled flights in early 2020, the industry has slowly been building back with a combination of innovative technology, new sanitization policies, and careful expansion to reopening markets.
Air travel is a key component of many corporate travel programs, but it can be overwhelming to keep up with the latest information in order to assess the safety measures most likely to impact your travelers. Before you make a decision about how and when your organization should resume air travel, consider the following research and new technologies now guiding airlines and airports.
Dispelling Safety Fears
Getting a clear picture of COVID-19 risks in the traveler journey was initially complicated by a lack of scientific studies and widespread misinformation. As the pandemic has continued, new reports have suggested that air travel does not pose a greater risk than many other activities conducted outside the controlled environment of one’s own home.
In fact, the cabin of an airplane may be the safest of any enclosed public space. This is thanks in part to the rapid speed at which airplanes filter and remove 99 percent of airborne particles, completely replacing the air in the cabin every 2-3 minutes via HEPA filters.
These filtration systems are backed by recent scientific research, which has shown little correlation between being on an airplane and COVID-19 transmission. A study conducted by MIT pegged the risk of transmission on a full flight at 1 in 4,300 and 1 in 7,700 if the middle seat is blocked. Thanks to contact tracing, tracking data shows that only one known flight has caused a multiple-person outbreak, and there is evidence of entire flights testing negative after a fellow passenger onboard later tested positive. This is further demonstrated by the low rate of infection among airline staff, which stands at .8 percent versus the 2 percent infection rate of the general public.
Implementing Rapid Testing
Travel conducted during a pandemic must be evaluated and weighed like any other activity that inherently introduces an added element of risk. To help counter this risk though, airlines have rolled out new rapid testing options as part of the travel process.
United Airlines made strides as the first US carrier to offer COVID-19 tests to passengers. Passengers traveling on select flights have the option to take a rapid test at the airport and wait approximately 15 minutes for their test results. Alternatively, passengers can choose to conduct a self-collected, mail-in test 10 days ahead of their trip and receive results 72 hours before travel. While both options are at an added cost to the passenger, travel managers and company executives should consider whether to include rapid testing as reimbursable business travel expense, particularly since it can save the company from the expense of traveler quarantine.
Since United’s announcement, other airlines have followed suit with similar programs, indicating that rapid testing may provide a key way forward for safely resuming business travel. Across North America, pilot testing programs have yielded encouraging results. Air Canada, which has conducted testing at Toronto Pearson International Airport on more than 13,000 arriving passengers since September, revealed that less than 1 percent have tested positive.
Unique partnerships and proactive airport programs are also supplementing airline testing. Tampa International Airport has rolled out testing that allows any passenger to be tested for COVID-19 regardless of which airline they are flying. New anti-microbial products are helping create a sanitized travel environment, such as a TSA partnership with Delta to add microbial bins at select security checkpoints and a UV disinfectant technology from Boeing for rapidly sterilizing airplane spaces.
Rapid testing may not solve all the pandemic challenge facing air travel, but it does show a path forward for minimizing risk and increasing traveler confidence. A vaccine is of course the most impactful next step. More than 150 vaccines are in development around the world, including nearly a dozen that have reached the critical third and final phase of clinical trial testing. Until then, the idea of an “immunity passport” is still being explored. Most notably, the CommonPass is currently in pilot testing to provide a standard way of certifying lab results and vaccination records.
For the present, it is important that businesses ensure their employees feel comfortable traveling again. Your travel program must have the proper technologies and responsive services in place to support travelers returning to the road. To help get you started, the Direct Travel team can provide a custom consultation geared towards steering your business travel back on track and keeping your travelers safe in the process—contact us to learn more.