Tampa International Airport is rolling out a first-of-its-kind initiative to make travel more palatable for passengers in a post-pandemic age: coronavirus testing right in the terminal.
The airport is teaming with BayCare Health System to offer voluntary testing for any passenger departing from or arriving at the airport. The tests are open to anyone who has flown, or is flying, within three days, and can show proof of travel.
It’s a trial program, so far scheduled only for October. But airport and BayCare officials said Tuesday that it’s a critical step in restoring faith in the safety of the travel industry, which has been devastated by the pandemic.
“Our responsibility as good managers is to try to get out of this hole that we’re in. And we’re going to do that," said airport CEO Joe Lopano. “This is just a test, but we think if it’s successful — and we think it will be — we’ll continue, and we’ll grow it."
There are two types of tests, both offered near the Airside F shuttle in the main terminal: A rapid antigen test, which costs $57, and a polymerase chain reaction swab, which costs $125. The tests will be offered on a walk-in basis from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 1-31.
Passengers are encouraged to come in advance for the more expensive swab if they’re flying to a destination that requires proof of a negative polymerase chain reaction test, such as Puerto Rico. Those results typically arrive within 48 hours. The antigen test, which yields results in 15 minutes, is meant to offer travelers same-day peace of mind.
“It’s so important to have rapid, reliable fast testing," said Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association. “It’s so critical, and the whole industry’s pushing for that, because it will really revive air travel and our economy.”
The coronavirus pandemic all but shut down the air travel industry in March, April and even into the summer, as second waves and flare-ups created hotspots in Florida and elsewhere.
This spring, the government gave the airline industry a $25 billion bailout package, which stipulated that carriers could not implement layoffs before Oct. 1. With an extension or additional bailout unlikely to pass this week, those job cuts could come any day.
Tampa International Airport saw passenger traffic drop by 96 percent in April, prompting officials to postpone more than $900 million in construction projects, initiate staff buyouts, and project a revenue shortfall of nearly $76 million for the fiscal year. The airport has offset its losses in part through an $81 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
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Rapid on-site testing might do more than ease consumers' minds about air travel, said John Tiliacos, the airport’s executive vice president of operations and customer service. It could be a factor in whether the government reopens the doors for international travel.
“We get numerous calls every day from passengers that are flying to locations, whether it’s within the U.S. or outside the U.S., asking if we provide testing,” Tiliacos said. “It’s something that frankly the travel industry has been trying to impress upon governments — both the U.S. government and governments around the world — that we really need to implement some form of rapid testing that ideally gives you results on the spot.”
If a passenger tests positive, they’ll be advised not to fly — although there’s not a law preventing them from doing so, Tiliacos said. Contact tracing, including at the airport, will be handled through the Florida Department of Health.
BayCare will track the number of tested travelers in order to determine whether the trial program is a success and could be extended or expanded to other airports.
“We hope this becomes a catalyst for a broader national conversation that needs to be had regarding testing of passengers, so that we can instill confidence in people to fly,” Tiliacos said.
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