A quick swab and a boarding pass: Israel's El Al launches check-in COVID-19 test

BEN GURION AIRPORT, Israel (Reuters) - Israel’s El Al airlines launched a pilot programme at its Tel Aviv airport check-in counters on Monday to test unvaccinated passengers for COVID-19 before allowing them to board a non-stop flight to New York.

A passenger gets a test, developed by Sheba Medical Center, which takes 15 minutes to deliver results and considered reliable for detecting active coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infection, an El Al spokesman said, before a pilot flight from Israel to New York, at Ben Gurion international airport near Tel Aviv, in Lod, Israel March 8, 2021. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Just before stepping up to the counters, 112 of the 280 passengers on flight 003 were required by El Al to undergo a nose swab - a rapid antigen test, with results within 15 to 20 minutes, that detects protein fragments specific to the coronavirus. All 112 passed the test.

Airlines have for months been lobbying governments for such measures to prevent people from having to go into quarantine on arrival.

With some 40 percent of Israelis over the age of 16 already fully vaccinated after their second dose of Pfizer /BioNTech’s vaccine, most of those tested at the airport were children, who under current health guidelines are not given the shots.

“He was good. He only cried for a second,” said the mother of a 10-month-old after the nose swab by a medical team stationed in front of the check-in desk.

For 5-year-old Hili Lazarof, the test was “okay”.

The aim of the test was to ensure no one on the plane carried the coronavirus or could infect others. But masks were still mandatory for the duration of the 12-hour flight.

“What we are trying to do in this concept is basically taking three layers of protection for the passengers,” El Al Chief Executive Avigal Soreq told Reuters.

He was referring to government-issued vaccination certificates issued in Israel’s world-leading inoculation rollout, PCR tests which all Ben Gurion airport passengers must take up to 72 hours before takeoff, and the rapid-result swab.

Such testing could reduce social distancing that limits turnover at airports and cramps passenger comfort, and allow business as usual for duty-free shops and restaurants, said Leehu Hacohen, El Al’s vice president for operations.

“Today’s flight is, I think, the first in the world where you will know that you have verified that everyone onboard is certainly clean and non-coronavirus contagious,” he told Israel’s Army Radio.

Some passengers were annoyed they had to have another test after a negative result in their PCR swab, grumbling to ticket agents about a wait that took a bit longer than the promised 15 minutes.

But Hodaya Meshita, 27, from Savannah, Georgia said about her rapid test: “It’s uncomfortable for a few seconds.” She has had only one dose of a two-shot vaccine so far.

Soreq said El Al would likely carry out similar swabbing in New York next week and then see whether to add the process to other flights as the airline and Israel’s tourism industry struggle to recover from the pandemic.

Reporting by Steven Scheer; Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Howard Goller