Delhi, Mumbai airports to partner firms for on-arrival Covid-19 testing

Passengers found negative can avoid quarantine, particularly institutional quarantine —fear of which is one of the biggest hurdles to reviving travel demand
Two of India’s largest airports, Delhi and Mumbai, are trying to find viable alternatives to the current requirement of two weeks’ quarantine for arriving travellers in a bid to reduce their cost burden and spur demand.

The airports are in discussions with laboratory chains such as Dr Dangs Lab and Dr Lal PathLabs to offer ‘Test-on-Arrival’ RT-PCR testing procedures. 

“We are working on the possibility of providing RT-PCR testing within the terminal building. A RT-PCR test requires 7-8 hours and if the test is negative, the passenger can travel to their destination within 24 hours,” said an official of Mumbai International Airport.

Passengers found negative can avoid quarantine, particularly institutional quarantine —fear of which is one of the biggest hurdles to reviving travel demand. The proposal to the government also says that departing international passengers can be similarly tested, get their results in seven hours and then check-in for their flights.

A government official, confirming that such a proposal has been made, said this process can further open up inbound and outbound travel for India which, since March, has come to a near halt following the outbreak of coronavirus.

“Airports are working to build such a procedure but it needs approval from the state governments, health, civil aviation and home ministry as well as other countries. A draft standard protocol is being prepared after consultation with stakeholders. It is yet to be finalised,” the official said.

From August 8, the government has tweaked quarantine norms for international passengers. They can now avoid institutional quarantine by submitting a RT-PCR test result done 96 hours before the flight. However, such passengers still need to undergo seven days’ home isolation. When the swabs are taken to a biotech lab near the airports, the transportation protocols laid down by the health ministry will be followed. A waiting room will be provided for them while they await the test result but they will not be allowed to mingle with passengers in the main terminal building. 

The new testing procedure will be available as a paid service to anyone with a flight landing at the two airports. Passengers will need to set up an account and book their test online, before beginning their journey to India.

The two airports are also talking to the airlines to see if the test costs can be included in the ticket price. If the proposal is approved, it will be started on a pilot basis for a limited number of passengers and then gradually scaled up. “It will not be possible to implement a fast testing procedure for all passengers at one time. The facilities will be scaled up gradually,” said the government official.

Recovery of air travel is critical to the finances of the two companies that own the airports. The GMR group owns Delhi airport and the GVK group owns Mumbai. The airport business constitutes the bulk of their revenue. Despite the opening up of air travel on 25 May, quarantine protocols and a fear of catching the infection while flying have made it difficult for airlines to fill flights, leading to loss of business for the airports.

Saurabh Chawla, executive director, finance and strategy of the GMR group, in the company’s recent earnings call, said the example of Heathrow Airport had inspired the idea. Heathrow has initiated Covid-19 tests on arrival or pre-embarkation, based on new testing technologies that give the result in 20 minutes with 98 per cent accuracy. “Initiatives like these will actually help open up airports as we head into the future. These technologies will bring confidence back to flyers that they are travelling safe,” said Chawla.

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