Hub airline perils in the time of Coronavirus

After a recent Qatar Airways flight 12 passengers tested positive for Covid-19.

Qatar AIrways pleaded that it is not the airline’s fault, arguing that all twelve passengers from flight QR203 who tested positive for Covid-19 at Athens Airport, did not start their journey from Qatar.

There were 91 passengers on board and all were quarantined in Athens

According to the airline, the passengers were continuing their journey from Doha to Athens from connecting flights. Out of the 12 passengers, nine are Pakistani nationals with Greek permanent residence permits, travelling from Pakistan; one Greek national from Japan and two other Greek nationals from Australia.

The passengers who tested positive for coronavirus would be in quarantine for 14 days, and those who tested negative would remain in quarantine for seven days and then be tested for a second time.

“Upon arrival in Doha and before boarding the flight to Athens, all passengers were screened and tested according to the procedures and established health protocols and were found suitable to continue their journey,” Qatar Airways said.

But they are not tested for the coronavirus when they transit through Doha. They are simply subject to body temperature scanners. The established health protocols might detect those with obvious illness. But not anyone who is asymptomatic.

And here is the problem with airlines whose business is primarily transit traffic. Planes arrive at the hub from around the world. Passengers then intermingle in the terminal area while moving to their next departure gate; and then passengers get onboard another airliner, with new passengers from around the world to head to their final destination.

Worse – in Singapore – at least in the old terminals 1 and 2 – arriving and departing passengers would all thrown together on the same level with security areas at the boarding gate.

Some countries have screening on arrival; some have hard or softer quarantine rules. Some countries require fit-to-fly or medical certification to be provided before boarding – but the rules are inconsistent and not universally applied.

At best, airport screenings are likely to only identify the most obvious cases. So So destination countries cannot rely on the airports as a safety barrier and have to put in place their own measures, some requiring a negative coronavirus test before travel or as at Hong Kong International Airport requiring mandatory testing for all arriving passengers. But this still lengthy process (up to eight hours) cannot be the solution when traffic levels start to increase.

Emirates trialed rapid finger-prick blood tests to a small subset of passengers last month. But this was a test for antibodies not for Covid-19 infections and accuracy rates were found to be around 30%. The Dubai Health Authority has now banned the tests.

Vienna International Airport announced on May 4 that incoming travelers without proof of a negative Covid-19 test within the previous four days could avoid a mandatory 14-day quarantine by taking a test at the airport for 190 euros (US$208). However, the testing is only available to passengers with a residence in Austria and a valid residence permit, hardly making it a viable option for business travelers and tourists.

In Cambodia all foreigners entering the country are required to make a $3,000 security deposit to cover the cost of COVID-19 testing – the testing process and fees to be paid for the test and accommodation etc are onerous.

Airport testing may become more common when rapid-result Covid-19 kits are developed but it is likely to be at the traveler’s expense.

In the meantime when flying does start all or some of these measures may be required at the departure terminal.

Online check in
Uploading health information
Pre-purchasing a mask and pair of gloves
Arriving at the airport hours prior to departure
Pass through a disinfection tunnel and thermal body scanner before entering the airport. Further thermal body scanners in the terminal and boarding area.
For some destinations – evidence of a negative coronavirus test and/or a fit to fly certificate.
Non travelers, friends and family will not be allowed into the airport terminal.
Scan your own boarding passes, preferably from a mobile app.
Significant reductions in carry-on baggage.

So, a simple comparison. You have a choice. A non-stop flight from Bangkok to London – or a flight to Doha, a transfer and a new flight to London. In this new world which feels safer.

For the non-stop flight everyone is subject to the same screening on departure and arrival. You sit with the same people for the full 12 hour flight. If there is an infection then contact tracing is simpler because everyone has traveled together.

Your transfer flight requires a stop in Doha. Your flight onwards to London requires that you sit with a new group of people who could have connected on flights in from for instance Iran, South Africa, India and Pakistan. You have no idea what screening processes have been in place at their point of origin.

Any infection could have been contracted on either the flight to London or from any of the connecting flights.

This virus is not going away. Flying through a hub airport has to carry additional risk that can be avoided by direct flights from point-to-point.

Emirates, Etihad, Singapore and Cathay Pacific shut down their hub operations for the last three to four months through the worst of the pandemic. Qatar did not. Qatar Airways must have carried more infected passengers throughout this pandemic than any other airline. However they try to spin this as positive pr this was a chance to help stop the spread of the virus. Qatar Airways chose not to.

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