Preparing our Pilot for Takeoff

Co-authored by:
Robyn McVicker
, Vancouver Airport Authority Vice President, Operations and Maintenance
Billy Nolen, WestJet Vice-President, Safety, Security and Quality
WestJet

Last week, the Governments of Alberta and Canada announced a COVID-19 testing pilot for Canadians arriving from international destinations at Calgary International Airport (YYC) and the Coutts land border crossing. The pilot, which aims to safely reduce the 14-day quarantine to as little as two days, is a positive step towards increasing confidence in the travelling public and helping in the fight against COVID-19. YVR and WestJet are very supportive of its development and we look forward to seeing government-approved COVID-19 testing at YVR and other Canadian airports in the future.

We believe the Alberta pilot complements our upcoming rapid-testing pilot for domestic departing flights at YVR. This pandemic requires our collective efforts and underscores the importance of working together to contribute to a unified solution for a safe and healthy travel experience for everyone.

For YVR and WestJet, it is crucial that we take a science-based approach to improving public confidence in air travel. When we set out on our pilot, we did so with two objectives in mind: testing the tests and testing the process. As there are many testing technologies, our first objective is about selecting a type of rapid test that is useful in an airport environment, scalable to recovering passenger traffic volumes and has strong potential for future Health Canada approval. Having a leading research partner like UBC is vital to ensuring the data we generate is both additive and useful to government partners and public health officials. UBC is making great progress designing the study, which must undergo review with their ethics board, and we look forward to sharing more soon.

In terms of testing the process, this objective is about lending our collective operational expertise to place a rapid-testing program in a live airport environment. Our organizations are fine-tuning many practical aspects, addressing logistics and matching them with passenger flows to ensure the process is simple. For instance, we have decided to move forward with a 4-hour daily testing window to capture WestJet’s departing domestic flights rather than targeting specific routes. As well, the pilot will target Lower Mainland residents to ensure anyone testing positive can easily return home. It is important to note that less than one per cent of passengers who have flown on WestJet’s flights have been diagnosed with COVID-19 post-travel and zero transmission is known to have occurred on board.

In addition, we selected Citizen Care Pod to provide a ready-made testing station that will be placed on the curb outside WestJet’s domestic check-in area at YVR. The 40-foot pod will offer a private, safe and comfortable environment to carry out testing, complete with climate control and HEPA filters to ensure the air is as sterile as any hospital environment (see rendering below). The testing will entail a straightforward process—a brief consult with research coordinators prior to undergoing testing, followed by a short questionnaire before receiving results—and will not add much time to the airport journey.

Artist's rendering of the screening area

Lastly, we conducted public polling to better understand willingness to undergo testing as traveller participation will be key to our voluntary pilot’s success. We are pleased to report that nearly two-thirds of travellers polled expressed strong support for rapid-testing at the airport.

The progress we are making is exciting and, as November nears, we are proud to do our part and look forward to keeping you updated.

Robyn McVicker
Vice President, Operations and Maintenance
Vancouver Airport Authority
Billy Nolen
Vice President, Safety, Security and Quality
WestJet