The Covid-19 quarantine is turning out to be the big stumbling block to air mobility. Yesterday (25 May), as flights resumed from multiple locations in India, many passengers who had arrived at airports in the hope of getting back home or to work, were left stranded as flights got cancelled. Reason: some states refused to accept incoming passengers altogether, while others said they would have to be quarantined for 14 days on arrival.
Let’s be clear: you don’t travel in order to be immobilised once you reach your destination. While business travellers will have none of this, even leisure and other travellers will see quarantining as a deal-breaker.
The Civil Aviation Minister, Hardeep Puri, who moved heaven and earth to get states to be more reasonable on allowing flights to land in their cities, probably made a mistake in rushing through the resumption of flights before ironing out these issues.
Passengers are willing to put up with delayed flights, uncomfortable masks and face shields, no meal services, and slow queue movement, but quarantining for 14 days is a simple no-no even if home quarantining is an option.
Quite clearly, we have resumed flights before sorting out this basic issue. One had presumed the opposite when Puri told news channels in interviews given before 25 May that nobody would fly if they had to submit themselves to a state quarantine or even home quarantine.
Is there any way around the problem? Two solutions can be considered.
First, one could let all asymptomatic passengers go through after a quick medical exam by health workers that goes beyond mere temperature scanning. This would still increase the risk of travelling with a potential Covid-19 infected person who was not identified through simple checks. But it would be an acceptable risk when we are anyway sending millions of migrants back home in crowded buses and trains.
Second, there is a better option, even if takes time to implement. If we make it possible for anyone to subject herself to rapid antibody testing a day in advance, and produce a lab certificate to this effect, she should need no quarantine. This could even be done at the airport. Results in antibody testing can be made available within 15 minutes, and this would ensure that no potential Covid-19 suspect gets to board. The costs can even be loaded onto the passenger.
On the downside, frequent travellers would need to do tests frequently, but then who said we were going back to the good old days?
If we are to revive air travel, we have to get passengers to rid themselves of the fear of being stuck at government facilities or at hotels or even at home for two weeks. Freedom to travel is not freedom if the end-result is house arrest.
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