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Israel launches rapid COVID airport testing ... finally

El Al’s new testing system has so far been well received by passengers who have tried it

A medical technicians tests a passenger for COVID-19 at the Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on March 8, 2021. (Photo: Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Israeli airline company El Al launched a quick COVID testing system for its passengers this week and has launched a trial on its flights between Israel and New York.

The new innovative system was developed in cooperation with Israel’s Sheba Medical Center, which was ranked as the ninth best hospital worldwide in 2020 by Newsweek magazine. If successful, the rapid-virus testing system could become a global standard for air travel in the pandemic era. 

All unvaccinated passengers including children and infants need to take the new rapid corona test prior to boarding the flight. The test takes only 15 minutes and is a complement to the standard negative COVID test taken no more than 72 hours prior to the flight. The test is performed via a nasal swab and the result is received within 15 to 20 minutes. Passengers who test positive will not be permitted to board the flight but will be eligible for a refund on their tickets. 

El Al CEO Avigal Soreq called the new rapid COVID test system as a game changing factor in the effort to reopen the skies and boosting international tourism. 

"The plan will let El Al help the Israeli government in its decision to open the skies and in the future to rehabilitate the tourist industry, for the benefit of the Israeli economy," Soreq said. 

Apart from being time efficient, the new COVID testing system will provide an additional layer of protection to all passengers onboard, according to El Al. On the other hand, the new testing system can potentially disrupt travel plans for unvaccinated passengers who have so far been able to travel with a negative test on the PCR. If they fail to pass the antigen rapid test at the airport, they will not be allowed to board the plane. 

It is still unclear how the new tests will affect the air ticket prices. 

"Our aim is to ensure a safe mechanism that will encourage the aviation sector. The question of pricing and costs of the system is secondary at the moment," stated Soreq. However, it is likely that the each test will cost around $15. If becoming a standard procedure in the future, the extra cost will likely be automatically added to the ticket price. 

While the new test minimizes the risk of virus spread onboard, wearing masks on flights will likely still continue to be mandatory for the foreseeable future. However, Leehu Hacohen, El Al’s vice president for operations, expressed hope ahead of the first flight with the new testing system that some of the strict social distancing procedures will be reduced without endangering the passengers’ health security. 

“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,” Hacohen told Army Radio.  

El Al’s new testing system have so far been well received by passengers who have tried it. 

New Yorker Ari Meyer praised the time efficiency of the new testing. 

“We landed at four o'clock, and I’m all done exactly one hour after that. I don’t think it could be much faster.”

Rishonam, another New York resident shared Meyer’s sentiments. 

“The process cannot have gone smoother,” said Rishonam, who was able to visit Israel for the first time in 16 months. 

 “It was so smooth, as long as you knew what documents to bring, which everyone should find out in advance. I waited about four minutes to be tested, and they had a lot of testing people on hand,” added Rishonam. 

Meanwhile on Tuesday, senior Israeli Health Ministry official Sharon Alroy-Preis said rapid COVID tests will likely be available at the entrance to different events throughout Israel. Once in place, it will be part of Israel’s new “Green Pass” system.

Critics have argued that the green pass system could discriminate unvaccinated individuals by denying them entry to different venues and events. A rapid testing system will ensure that unvaccinated people will have the same access to different events as vaccinated individuals. 

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