How Airport Covid‑19 Testing Will Change Travel

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Everything you need to know.

This story was originally published in December 2020 and was updated in July 2021.

The federal government advises that Canadians avoid all non‑essential travel, both at home and abroad. Stay informed on the latest travel rules and restrictions by visiting the Government of Canada’s site on travel health notices.

If your reason for travel is considered essential by a province or territory under the Quarantine Act’s emergency orders (and you are given an exemption by the government of Canada) here are some helpful resources to help you plan your trip.

Should you need to travel, Air Canada is flying to destinations across Canada, the U.S., Europe and Asia. More information on where Canadians can travel can be found here.

In exchange for open borders and peace of mind while travelling, would you be willing to spend a little extra time at the airport to get a Covid‑19 test? In Canada, airport Covid‑19 testing facilities are now operating at four of the major airports in the country: Calgary International AirportVancouver International AirportToronto Pearson International Airport and Montréal–Trudeau International Airport. With more and more airports integrating Covid‑19 testing measures onsite, can departure tests prevent infected travellers from boarding a flight and spreading the virus?

Related: How Canadian Families Can Travel More Safely During a Pandemic 

We interviewed Canadian medical health experts to find out more about what on‑site airport testing means for the future of travel. Dr. Don Sin is a respirologist and professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia (UBC) who is a co‑principal investigator for a testing study out of Vancouver International Airport. Dr. Vivek Goel is a professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and a co‑principal investigator of a study that was conducted at Toronto Pearson International Airport.

Which Canadian airports have Covid‑19 testing?

As of July, Covid‑19 testing is offered at four of the major Canadian airports, under varying circumstances. Per the Government of Canada’s most recent announcement, fully vaccinated travellers are no longer required to quarantine upon arrival or submit a negative Covid‑19 test during their quarantine, as long as they meet the requirements outlined here. For travellers who are not yet fully vaccinated, quarantine and testing pre‑departure and/or upon arrival is mandatory. These tests will add some time to your schedule, but the trade‑off is more peace of mind before your flight.

Calgary Internationl Airport — The Calgary airport offers both rapid antigen testing and PCR testing for departing and arriving passengers. Calgary’s Covid‑19 testing program provides mandatory tests for qualifying travellers coming from outside Canada and arriving directly in Alberta – domestic travellers are not required to submit a Covid‑19 test or quarantine upon arrival in Alberta. The tests are provided at no cost to travellers by two different providers: Numi Health at the airport and DynaLIFE offsite.

Vancouver International Airport — The Vancouver airport requires on‑arrival testing, as well as offering testing for departing passengers. They offer a variety of rapid antigen tests at different cost levels at the traveller’s expense – arrival tests are free. As for departing B.C. residents, tests range from $120 to $199. Vancouver has many private testing options for those who do not have any symptoms of Covid‑19, available by appointment both inside and near the airport: CVM Medical ($129), Ultima Vancouver Airport Medical Clinic ($120), and LifeLabs FlyClear program ($199).  Those with symptoms consistent with Covid‑19 can visit Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) for free Covid‑19 testing.

Toronto Pearson International Airport  — The Toronto airport offers both rapid antigen testing and PCR testing for departing and arriving passengers as part of a free, voluntary research study, supported by the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP). International travellers are required to register for and take a Covid‑19 molecular test upon arrival in Canada, while at the airport and later during their mandatory quarantine period if they are not yet fully vaccinated. Rapid antigen testing is now provided onsite for departing passengers, free of charge – these testing services are made available at the airport through Fionet Rapid Response Group, together with Alpha Labs, and OnPoint1 Health, and under the supervision of a licensed medical doctor.

Montréal–Trudeau International Airport  — Montréal‑Trudeau offers both rapid antigen testing and PCR testing for departing passengers at different cost levels at the traveller’s expense, with costs ranging from $149 to $299. It is one of the most recent Canadian airports to integrate onsite Covid‑19 testing procedures. Quebec does not currently require arriving passengers to be tested upon arrival. Instead, travellers are to submit their information through the ArriveCAN app, including their quarantine plans and a completed Covid‑19 symptom self‑assessment 48 hours after arrival. As for departing travellers, the airport does provide Covid‑19 tests onsite, by appointment only, in partnership with Biron Groupe Santé: PCR testing for $299; rapid antigen testing for $149; and PCR swab testing for $250.

How do these airport Covid‑19 testing programs work? 

As of July 5th, 2021, all travellers, domestic or international, who are fully vaccinated are not required to quarantine or complete a Covid‑19 test once they’ve arrived at their destination.

The Government of Canada’s ‘Flying to Canada’ checklist outlines the mandatory process that travellers who are not yet fully vaccinated must complete, which includes taking a molecular Covid‑19 test upon entry into the country and again later in their quarantine. Travellers are encouraged to account for testing time when planning their travels. This checklist also includes the ArriveCAN app, to upload your travel information and Covid‑19 vaccine documentation.

Related: Best Apps to Use When Travelling During a Pandemic 

International travellers arriving at Calgary International Airport, who are not yet fully vaccinated, must complete a pre‑departure negative Covid‑19 test (within 72 hours of departure), submit mandatory travel information using the ArriveCAN app and make a three‑day reservation at a Government Authorized Accommodation (GAA). Upon arrival, they must complete another Covid‑19 test at no cost, which they can register for up to five days before arrival.

Related: How to Stay Healthy at a Hotel During the Pandemic 

At Toronto Pearson International Airport, all arriving international travellers must take a molecular Covid‑19 test upon entry into the country and again later in quarantine for those who are not yet fully vaccinated. Mandatory arrivals testing is available at both Terminal 1 and Terminal 3, administered by Switch Health. Travellers who aren’t fully vaccinated must follow the same process as in Calgary, which entails submitting a negative pre‑departure Covid‑19 test, booking a mandatory hotel stay at a government authorized accommodation, registering in advance for arrivals testing through Switch Health and completing an ArriveCAN submission.

On‑arrival testing is required at Vancouver International Airport for international travellers, in addition to the pre‑departure testing requirement, which requires travellers coming to Canada to demonstrate proof of negative Covid‑19 results from a test taken within 72 hours prior to departure. To make this possible, they offer rapid antigen tests and PCR Tests by appointment, on and off site. Similar to Calgary and Toronto, international travellers must follow the same arrival process.

Montréal–Trudeau International Airport does not require arriving travellers to take a Covid‑19 test, although they do provide onsite testing for departing passengers. Instead, 48 hours after entering Canada, travellers must use ArriveCAN to confirm they have arrived at their place of quarantine and complete a daily Covid‑19 symptom self‑assessment during their quarantine.

Related: How Will Vaccine Passports Affect Travel? 

Will more airports start offering Covid‑19 rapid testing?

All four major Canadian airports offer a variety of rapid antigen and PCR Covid‑19 tests at different price points. This includes minimally invasive nasal swabs, as well as oropharyngeal and nasopharyngeal swabs. The most‑used test is the rapid antigen test, which was approved by Health Canada in October 2020.

“Airports could be a very good site for these kinds of tests because the turnaround time between the swab and the test result is 15 minutes,” says Dr. Sin. “While somebody is getting a cup of coffee, you can have the test results ready at hand so that they can board.”

Another common option is the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, the same kind of swab test as those used by hospitals and clinics. Private test providers like the ones in Vancouver and Calgary also use the PCR test, which usually takes about 48 hours to turn around.

July 22, 2021
 Covid airport test
   Photo: Mufid Majnun

How effective are airport Covid‑19 tests? 

The PCR test used in Calgary, Toronto and Montreal airports detects the RNA of the virus, while the rapid antigen test, used at all four airports, detects specific proteins. 

“The PCR test is the gold standard test for Covid‑19 because it is nearly 100 percent accurate and can detect Covid‑19 in symptomatic or asymptomatic people,” says Dr. Goel, adding that the sensitivity and specificity of detection using the oral (nasal) swab method is comparable to the nasopharyngeal swab.

While rapid antigen tests are not as accurate as PCR tests, they are considered “very accurate” in identifying those who are actively infectious, says Dr. Sin. “A positive test almost always means that they are carrying the virus.”

While a negative test indicates a person is probably not infectious, one limitation of the antigen test is that it is not as sensitive as the PCR and will not identify someone who contracted Covid‑19 half a year ago, for example, and is still shedding “bits and pieces of the virus”, Dr. Sin explained.

How might widespread airport Covid‑19 testing impact Canadians’ travel plans? 

More widespread testing at airports could potentially help make travel less restrictive eventually and bring more peace of mind to travellers if pilot programs and studies help prove the measure works.

International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade group for the world’s airlines, has argued for governments to implement rapid Covid‑19 testing for all international travelers prior to departure, and for a global testing standard so that tests and results are accepted by other jurisdictions along with a more “systematic and harmonized approach” to contact tracing.

A number of airports in the United States and around the world already offer some kind of airport Covid‑19 test. In some cases, testing is mandatory, in others, a test option may be available for a fee.

“In terms of aviation, you need both the departure and the arrival data to implement the best policies,” says Dr. Sin.

“The screening procedures at airports for potentially infectious Covid19 patients isn’t very stringent, so I think we need some sort of testing before passengers board... I think this will give tremendous confidence for the passengers if we deploy this kind of technology widely.”

Related: The Canadian AI Firm that Detected Covid‑19 Before the CDC and WHO