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Airlines are hoping that a foolproof test to detect COVID-19 symptoms will emerge soon. For now, there are many competing tests. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

London: The airline industry can't afford to wait for a vaccine. That's the message from the International Air Transport Association's chief medical adviser, David Powell.

On top of face masks, regular hand washing and sanitizing of high-touch surfaces, carriers should work with regulators to introduce reliable coronavirus testing systems for passengers before they board in order to get people back on planes.

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"The ideal protection is to avoid people who are infectious," Powell said . "We need a test that's reliable and fast enough and that's able to be done in huge numbers."

No cast-iron tests as yet

Right now, that's a tall order. Manfacturers globally are struggling to meet COVID-19 test-kit demand. And the multiple tests that do exist can often sow more confusion than certainty.

Just last month a spat erupted between Singapore and China after the latter found infectious passengers on a flight from the island nation. Singapore said most of the people in question had recovered but "may continue to shed viral fragments for weeks or even months" leading to a positive test result.

With almost no one traveling for business or leisure, airlines are doing everything they can to avoid collapse. IATA, which represents 290 carriers globally, has said it doesn't see passenger traffic recovering until at least 2024, and it expects airlines to lose more than $84 billion this year alone.

In early February, when COVID-19 was still a big question mark in most people's minds, Powell said the best way to avoid infection was frequent hand washing rather than wearing a mask. By May, the recommendation on face coverings was universal.

"We recognize that a percentage of COVID-19 cases can be asymptomatic," Powell said earlier this week. "That's the reason for that change in position."