As we head towards our first COVID-era Christmas, many Australians will be excited that it is once again possible to travel domestically to be with family and friends.
While international travel isn’t yet routine, some people continue to fly overseas with valid exemptions.
Of course, air travel moving forward is going to look a bit different. Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce recently declared international passengers will need to have had a COVID vaccine, and this statement has attracted some backlash.
But until a vaccine is widely available — and even beyond — testing is going to be a requirement for some travellers.
Do I need to produce a negative test to fly?
For domestic travel in Australia, airlines do not require proof of a negative COVID test. But you will still need to follow the border requirements of each state. For example, Western Australia continues to restrict visitors and require a 14-day isolation period for those who cross into the state from South Australia.
Your airline should have up-to-date information on any quarantine or other requirements, which you should check before flying. You can also check with the state government of your destination.
For people wanting to travel out of Australia who have a valid exemption from the Department of Home Affairs, some airlines and countries do require a COVID flight clearance. This is paperwork showing you have recently tested negative for the COVID-19 virus.
The clearance requirements differ depending on the airline you’re flying with and the countries through which you’re travelling. This is also something you should be able to check with your airline, as well as the government of your destination country.
For example, Emirates states that Australian tourists flying into Dubai “must present a negative COVID‑19 PCR test certificate that is valid for 96 hours from the date of the test before departure”.
Where can I get a COVID flight clearance test?
In Australia, anyone can access a free COVID test through a public health facility, mobile testing centre, or GP medical centre that offers bulk billing. You might have to pay for the consultation with your GP if they don’t offer bulk billing, but the test itself is free.
However, the tests are funded through Medicare, our national health insurance program, paid through our taxes. Medicare funds are intended to support the health and safety of Australians, rather than to be used for travel purposes.
For a flight clearance certificate, you can speak to your GP for a referral to a testing clinic, but be prepared that you may be asked to pay for the test.
Certain airlines also list recommended clinics. If you know you need a COVID test to travel, it’s a good idea to check whether your airline has nominated any particular clinics.
If you need a COVID flight clearance test, you will need verified evidence, which the provider will send to you once they have the result. You will have to present a printed certificate when you travel — a text message won’t cut it.
And make sure you check the time frame with your airline (for example, if you need the clearance no more than 72 hours before travelling, you can plan accordingly).
The cost of the test and subsequent clearance certificate may vary depending on where you go. One report suggested it would be around A$140.
Testing is an important measure, but it’s not foolproof
A negative test result does not guarantee a person is not infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), particularly if they’ve been exposed very recently. This is why people quarantining after travel or exposure are not immediately released following a negative test result.
It’s also possible for somebody who is truly negative to pick up the virus in transit.
Even with a COVID vaccine, clearance certificates may still be required to protect other passengers on a flight. The intent of a vaccine is to protect a person from becoming very sick with COVID-19. But we don’t know yet whether a vaccine will render people completely immune to SARS-CoV-2, and importantly, whether it will stop the virus spreading.
Wherever you’re travelling — domestically or internationally — stay informed in the lead-up to your trip by checking the requirements of the state or country you’re travelling to, as well as the airline you’re flying with.
And if you have any questions about your own ability to travel, it’s best to consult your GP.