Sept. 29 Update:
United Airlines has announced that, beginning October 15, it will offer rapid testing (results in 15 minutes) to passengers travelling from San Francisco to Hawaii. Other airlines are also getting ready to offer such nasal swab tests so that passengers can ostensibly a) fly without infecting anyone and b) not to have to quarantine when they reach their destination. Other airlines that have announced similar plans include Lufthansa and American Airlines.

WestJet and Vancouver International Airport (YVR) announced they have a “new pilot taking flight” soon.

The clever play on words refers to a pilot project that will offer voluntary COVID-19 testing to WestJet guests on select departing flights out of Vancouver. Unfortunately, although the experimental exercise is supposed to launch this fall, the partners have just announced the research partner –  the University of B.C. – but not what academic division. The project is still being designed but ostensibly, passengers will be offered tests and be given rapid results at the airport. But before any of that happens, YVR will be consulting with passengers about their perceptions and willingness to undergo voluntary COVID-19 testing.

The airport authority has not yet disclosed critical details like which technology platform will be used and whether passengers will be charged for the tests. Presumably they will be as other airlines plan to do that.

Chris Devauld, spokesman for the Vancouver Airport Authority, said he expects more information will be released soon.

For its part, Health Canada has been slow to evaluate rapid, “point of care” tests that detect COVID infections or antibodies, even though they are already being used in private industries and in many countries. The heat is now on Health Canada to catch up to the U.S. and other nations. No one expects such tests to be perfect. Even the COVID-19 detection tests used by government agencies have problems with sensitivity and specificity.

In a statement, Tamara Vrooman, CEO of the Vancouver Airport Authority, along with Ed Sims, CEO of WestJet, said they will only offer testing that incorporates “current best practices on testing, pulling together industry players and experts to lead in the research and development of solutions that support aviation safety and slow the spread of COVID-19.”

While airlines conduct temperature checks on passengers before they board flights, it is abundantly clear that’s mostly window-dressing; in this post, you can see the abundance of flights this month – domestic and international – in which thermal thermometers did not detect a passenger with COVID-19. And of course, that is because fevers are not always a feature of the illness at all timepoints.

Vrooman and Sims said the aviation industry has always been focused on safety so “for us, this pilot is a natural evolution of our historical commitment. It supports our efforts to uphold top safety standards while instilling confidence for those who need to travel. It’s also about building collective knowledge and literacy, which will help inform longer-term solutions around communicable diseases.”

They alluded to the fact that test results and other useful information will be shared with government authorities.

“We understand that COVID-19 testing is a rapidly evolving field with many unknowns. But we also know that we must continue to search for solutions—and that means being proactive, trialing processes, seeing what works and what needs improvement—all in an effort to help restart the global aviation industry in a safe manner and do our part to support economic recovery.

“We know air travel will take considerable time to recover to pre-pandemic levels and that COVID-19 will likely have a long-lasting impact on health screening in the travel journey.”

Air Canada is also investigating the use of rapid testing with various point-of-care technology companies. It is collaborating on a project at Toronto’s Pearson airport, performing tests on arriving travelers. An Air Canada spokesperson told The Toronto Star that the company believes “rapid testing has the potential to add another level of protection to the layered approach we are already taking to biosafety.”