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 January 2022. 

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 Airport,  Vancouver International Airport, Toronto Pearson International Airport and Montréal–Trudeau International Airport. With more and more airports integrating Covid‑19 testing measures on‑site, 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?

Covid‑19 testing is currently offered at four major Canadian airports, under varying circumstances. As of November 2021, full vaccination is required for travel within Canada, as well as anyone entering the country – this means having at least two doses of an accepted vaccine (list of accepted vaccines here), a mix of at least two accepted vaccines or at least one dose of the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Fully vaccinated travellers are not required to quarantine upon arrival to Canada unless randomly selected to do so. However, they are expected to upload proof of a negative Covid‑19 test, along with their vaccination record, via the ArriveCan app. For those randomly selected, a negative Covid‑19 test is required during quarantine. For travellers leaving Canada to fly internationally, a negative Covid‑19 test may be required. (That is where airport testing comes into play.) For travellers who are not yet fully vaccinated, quarantine and testing predeparture 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 International Airport  — Calgary airport offers both rapid antigen testing ($60) and PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing ($140) for departing passengers. Calgary’s Covid‑19 testing program is provided by Switch Health and is for travellers who need to provide a negative Covid‑19 test result in compliance with their destination’s Covid‑19 requirements; domestic travellers are not required to submit a Covid‑19 test or quarantine upon arrival in Alberta. 

Vancouver International Airport — The Vancouver airport offers on‑arrival testing, as well as testing for departing passengers. They offer a variety of rapid antigen and PCR tests at different prices for departing passengers, however arrival tests are free. Tests range from $120 to $199, available by appointment both inside and near the airport: CVM Medical ($79), Ultima Vancouver Airport Medical Clinic (rapid antigen for $99, PCR for $149) 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, provided by Switch Health. A regular PCR test costs $140, an expedited one is $250 and a rapid antigen costs $60 – all completed at Toronto Pearson’s on‑site testing facility. 

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 prices ranging from $99 to $299. This testing is done by appointment only, in partnership with Biron Groupe Santé: Rapid PCR testing (results within one hour) for $299; rapid antigen testing (results in 25 minutes) for $149; and rapid antigen testing (results in 24 hours) for $99.

How do these airport Covid‑19 testing programs work? 

As of December 15, 2021, the Government of Canada has reimplemented the advisory against non‑essential travel. All international travellers must provide a negative PCR Covid‑19 test result upon returning to Canada and may be randomly selected to quarantine and test again before completing their isolation period.

The Government of Canada’s Flying to Canada checklist outlines the mandatory process that travellers must follow should they need to travel. 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 must complete a predeparture negative Covid‑19 test (within 72 hours of departure) and submit mandatory travel information using the ArriveCAN app.

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 randomly selected to quarantine. Arrivals testing is available at both Terminal 1 and Terminal 3, administered by Switch Health.  

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.  

Montréal–Trudeau International Airport provides on‑site testing for departing passengers on the mezzanine level of the U.S. departures area – travellers must reserve their spot ahead of time and purchase their test online.  

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. 

January 28, 2022
 Covid airport test
   Photo: Mufid Majnun

How effective are airport Covid‑19 tests? 

The PCR test used at all four 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 explains.  

How might widespread airport Covid19 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. 

The 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 travellers 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 Covid‑19 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