The increase in air travel as people get back to their lives and livelihoods will require SARS-CoV-2 testing for the safety of passengers, air travel employees, and countries. Travel restrictions and testing requirements around the world change regularly and without prior notice. Safety plans are fluid and testing should be adaptable to what tomorrow may bring.

Testing varies around the world

Currently drivers for testing vary around the world. The U.S. government requires all international travelers to arrive in U.S. airports with a negative COVID-19 test, while some states require testing within the U.S.

The top-5 countries with most international arrivals—France, Spain, Italy, China, U.S.—all accept a negative PCR-based test as an alternative to vaccination. 1

Thermo Fisher wants to enable the safe return of international travel

The goal in air travel testing is to detect the virus in travelers, regardless of symptoms, before they enter a terminal. To help prevent virus spread in the bustling environment of global airports, tests must be highly sensitive to low viral amounts, scalable and efficient.

For these reasons, Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are considered the gold-standard method for assuring governments, airlines, and passengers of the highest accuracy in detecting COVID-19 before boarding.

PCR Testing

PCR tests work by detecting the genetic material of the virus in samples collected from individuals. They are the most sensitive and accurate COVID-19 tests available and The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends them for international travel specifically for these reasons.2

PCR tests can be designed to identify multiple targets of the same virus (multiplexing), therefore, potentially safeguarding these types of tests against new variants. Some of these tests also include a built-in control to assess sample integrity. Two types of PCR tests are:

Real-time PCR tests

PCR tests are noninvasive collections of saliva or anterior nasal swab samples to extract RNA (Ribonucleic acid) molecules and amplify them to detect even small amounts of virus genetic material.3

Real-time PCR tests are highly scalable (250 throughput in eight hours) and good for airlines needing traveler results within 24-72 hours before boarding.

Fast PCR tests

This type of PCR uses the same technology, but bypasses the RNA extraction step, and other modified conditions. It uses many of the same sample types as Real-time PCR, including saliva and nasal samples.

The highly flexible Fast PCR runs faster (558 throughput in eight hours), uses fewer materials and plastics, and has proven to be cost effective.

The way forward

Vaccine immunity is not perfect, and breakthrough infections have been recorded. This means that COVID-19 testing for air travel is still an important part of keeping passengers safe and preventing new outbreaks.4

Thermo Fisher has solutions for expanding the scale and flexibility of testing to safely navigate these times of ongoing transition in air travel.


1. United Nations World Tourism Organization. World Tourism Barometer and Statistical Annex, July 2021.

2. World Health Organization. COVID-19 diagnostic testing in the context of international travel, December, 2020

3. Smyrlaki I, Ekman M, Lentini A et al. (2020) Massive and rapid COVID-19 testing is feasible by extraction-free SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR. Nat Commun 11(1):4812.

4. Bertollini R, Chemaitelly H, Yassine H et al. Associations of Vaccination and of Prior Infection With Positive PCR Test Results for SARS-CoV-2 in Airline Passengers Arriving in Qatar. JAMA. Published online June 9, 2021.