Costly PCR tests to hurt airlines' recovery, Iata says

Prohibitive costs risk preventing families from visiting friends and relatives or taking holidays

A health worker collects a nose swab sample for a PCR test at a hospital in Kathmandu, Nepal. The International Air Transport Association said the average minimum cost for PCR testing ranged from $90 to $208 in 15 markets it monitored. Only France offered free tests. EPA
A health worker collects a nose swab sample for a PCR test at a hospital in Kathmandu, Nepal. The International Air Transport Association said the average minimum cost for PCR testing ranged from $90 to $208 in 15 markets it monitored. Only France offered free tests. EPA

Expensive PCR tests could dissuade travellers from booking flights and hurt airlines' recovery, the International Air Transport Association said.

A PCR test would increase the cost of an average air fare by 45 to 90 per cent on a one-way ticket, with costs ballooning for two PCR tests on a return trip. This could severely impact family travel, Iata said on Tuesday.

"The real risk here is that these prohibitive costs will prevent families from exercising their freedom to travel, to visit friends, to take a holiday," Willie Walsh, Iata's director-general said during an online media briefing on Tuesday. "As a society, we just cannot allow a situation to develop where only the rich can afford to travel again."

Iata's survey of PCR test costs in 16 countries showed wide variations between and within countries.

Pre-crisis, the average one-way airline ticket including taxes and charges cost $200, Iata said, citing 2019 data.

A $90 PCR test raises the cost by 45 per cent to $290. Adding another test on arrival would push up the one-way cost by 90 per cent to $380, Iata said. Assuming that two tests are needed in each direction, the average cost for an individual return-trip could balloon from $400 to $760.

For families, the travel cost increase is even more severe. A journey for four that would have cost $1,600 pre-pandemic could nearly double to $3,040 – $1,440 of which would be in testing costs – based on average ticket prices of $200 and average low-end PCR testing of $90 twice each way.

Of the markets surveyed, only France complied with the World Health Organisation's recommendation for the government to bear the cost of testing travellers, Iata said.

Among the remaining 15 markets, the average minimum cost for testing was $90, while the average maximum cost was $208.

"People are being gouged by these high prices," Mr Walsh said. "Governments continue to mandate these tests but are taking their big slice of the pie through VAT charges."

Much of the PCR testing can be adequately replaced by Antigen testing that is equally effective in terms of risk management and is also cheaper, he said.

Iata estimates the actual cost of PCR testing to be $15, Mr Walsh said, pointing to "significant mark-ups".

Companies are taking advantage of the crisis, which is "unacceptable", he said.

Updated: May 4, 2021 08:49 PM

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