Positioning itself as a “front runner” in COVID-19 testing, the Lufthansa Group says it is looking at opening testing centres in Canadian airports, the company revealed in a conference call on Tuesday (Sept 22nd).
Speaking to media via web cam, Dr. Björn Becker, senior director, product management, ground and digital services for Lufthansa, said the commercial COVID-19 testing facility the company has established at Frankfurt airport is currently conducting more 20,000 tests per day.
The facility, which opened in June, enables passengers departing from or arriving at Frankfurt Airport (FRA), as well as those from the region, to have access to PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, which can take between two to six hours to produce results.
Additionally, passengers who receive a negative PCR test can avoid their 14-day quarantine period in Germany immediately.
Lufthansa has testing sites in Munich, Hamburg, Düsseldorf (opening on Wednesday), and in addition to Canada, the company is looking to expand its centres into United States airports as well, Dr. Becker said.
“The situation is [that] it’s not easy to get a test if you need it,” he said. “We want to lower the hurdle for passengers to get these tests.”
Becker didn’t specify a timeline for when Lufthansa-run testing centres might potentially open in Canadian and U.S. airports, but stressed the importance of the expansion as both hubs are “major markets.”
Eliminating the hassle
The COVID-19 testing facility operating at Frankfurt airport - the first and largest of its kind - is integrated into the passenger experience, said Becker.
“It’s a fully digitalize service. You can register, get your throat swab, and you get certificate digitally in your app,” Becker explained. “Our passengers don’t have a hassle with that. If you need a negative certificate for where you need to go, we make it as easy as possible.”
The testing centre at FRA isn’t just limited to German citizens – anyone can visit the facility and undergo a COVID-19 test for a charge of 59 Euros, which amounts to just under $100 CAD, said Becker.
The Lufthansa Group says that more than 150,000 PCR tests were performed by biotech company CENTOGENE at Frankfurt Airport this past summer and the company expects testing to continue for at least another 12 to 18 months.
One of the company’s current priorities is to reopen markets by establishing controls and travel corridors by testing passengers at both departure and arrival points.
“If you have this, I’m convinced that the flight you take is the most protected environment you can be in,” said Becker. “There’s no other environment in your life, neither office or subway or at home, where you know that everybody around you has been tested.”
Becker said Lufthansa has been practicing this method with flights to China and is currently in talks with U.S. government officials to see if whether it could offer this level of protection to Americans, who are currently subjected to a travel ban.
“A travel ban on both sides cannot be the right way to go knowing that 99.9 per cent of people in both countries are not infected. We need to find smarter solutions,” said Becker.
Faster testing methods are coming
PCR testing, which detects COVID-19 by collecting a sample swab from a person's nose/throat, is widely used and is Lufthansa’s current method.
The airline group is now looking at "next generation" testing methods, such as antigen tests, which detects the presence of viral proteins in a biological sample, such as saliva or tissue swabbed from the nasal cavity, and reveals infections.
The big advantage here? “They’re faster and they don’t need a lab department,” said Becker.
PCR tests take at least two to three hours to reveal results (four to six hours when operating at the scale of an airport, noted Becker) whereas antigen tests take 15 minutes (closer to 20 by the time the certificate is proceeded, he said).
“That’s the next thing to come,” he said.
Premium testing options
Testing will also be become a “premium service element” and base for further Lufthansa services over the next few months, said Becker.
That’s not to say that only premium-level passengers will have access to a COVID-19 test.
(“Testing is not a premium service,” Becker said. “Testing is a service for every customer.”)
What the Lufthansa Group is looking at, rather, is introducing differentiations for premium passengers when it comes to testing, such as a separate line for frequent or business passengers (like the ones seen at security and boarding checkpoints).
Another option could be to offer the fast-reacting antigen test for premium customers – “the people who fly often [and] who appreciate that they can do fast tests,” said Becker – until those tests are widely available.
Despite these advancements in aviation safety protocols – which appear to be light years ahead of Canada’s progress in restarting air travel – the Lufthansa Group insists that it’s not getting into a “contest” over “who’s doing the most.”
Rather: “We want to focus on measures that are scientifically grounded that help us make things safe for our guests and our crew,” said Becker.
“It’s a tough time for airlines,” he said, “but we’re doing our best to manage this and protect us and protect our guests and to make travel as enjoyable as possible in these times.”
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