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Passengers queue to be screened for Covid-19 at a testing station set up at Schiphol airport, near Amsterdam, on Aug. 25, 2020.ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/AFP/Getty Images

Widespread adoption of COVID-19 tests for airline passengers will allow governments to reopen borders safely while boosting travel and limiting the devastation suffered by the world’s air carriers in the pandemic, the head of a global airline group says.

The International Air Transport Association’s call for tests comes as Air Canada and WestJet Airlines Ltd. say they plan to begin trials of voluntary COVID-19 checks for the lethal virus in the weeks ahead in an effort to persuade governments to loosen travel restrictions and assure passengers that flying is safe.

The head of the airline lobby group said tests developed with support of governments and the medical community that are fast, reliable and “more comfortable” than most could be among steps that could allow international air travel to resume, IATA’s Alexandre de Juniac told reporters on Tuesday. Without providing details, he outlined a test that passengers would take in two or three stages: two days before flying, on departure and perhaps on arrival.

IATA, which represents most commercial airlines, said global passenger demand for air travel in July was 80 per cent below the same month in 2019, a small recovery from June led by domestic demand in Russia and China. But a resurgence of the virus and a return to containment measures in Spain, France and other countries has slowed the rebound.

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“Governments reopening and then closing borders or removing and then reimposing quarantines does not give many consumers confidence to make travel plans, nor airlines to rebuild schedules,” Mr. de Juniac said.

On top of domestic restrictions, the Canadian border has been closed to most travellers since March. Those allowed in must self-isolate for 14 days, with some exceptions.

Calgary-based WestJet and Vancouver International Airport say they will test some departing travellers on domestic flights in a trial project due to begin in the fall. An Air Canada executive told investors last week about a similar plan for Toronto Pearson Airport.

Tamara Vrooman, chief executive officer of the Vancouver Airport Authority, said the science and methods on testing change swiftly, and it is too soon to know which test will be used, or the people, procedures and regulatory requirements involved to administer it.

“Over time, if this works well, we would expect that more of the travelling public would be interested in taking the test,” Ms. Vrooman said. “And if we get to a place where the efficacy is very sound, then the health authorities may make a direction [like] they have with masks in the terminal and other things about the need to introduce testing. But we’re way before that stage. We’re really just trying to understand how testing would work in an aviation and travel context.”

Ms. Vrooman said the preparation includes studying the layered approaches planned or in place at other airports. “We are aware that Air Canada is doing their own testing pilot with our colleagues at Toronto Pearson, and we’re interested in the outcome of that as well,” she said. “… We will be sharing our information with our colleagues in Toronto and with Air Canada, and we expect that they’ll be doing the same with their pilot.”

IATA’s Mr. de Juniac said several airports and countries are testing passengers for COVID-19, but the methods and reliability vary. Passengers arriving in Iceland choose between a 14-day quarantine or a two-stage test and five to six days of isolation. London’s Heathrow Airport is awaiting government approval to begin a system in which people who test clear on arrival and a few days later are released early from quarantine.

Mr. de Juniac said no airport in the world currently has the perfect example of the kind of regime the industry wants to implement.

Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, said last week the country’s 14-day self-isolation requirement is a proven measure. But she said the federal government is looking at various testing protocols as a way to reduce travel restrictions. “How we apply testing in that context is being actively explored,” Dr. Tam said.

The Canadian airline industry, led by Air Canada, has been a vocal advocate for opening borders to allow travel to resume and to limit the pandemic’s economic damage to the carriers. Air Canada said it is using up about $16-million a day of its cash reserves in the third quarter to continue operating. That is down from $22-million after measures that include 20,000 layoffs and thousands of cancelled flights.

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority, which operates Toronto Pearson Airport, and Air Canada declined to comment.

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