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COVID-19 pandemic changes our approach to air travel at international airports

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted many aspects of our lives, how we live, socialise, and the way we think about travel. While discussing the expansion of the Wattay International Airport last year, WHO worked with the Department of Communicable Disease Control, Department of Civil Aviation, Department of Immigration, airport operator and other partners to develop technical guidelines which includes the standard operating procedures to be used on point of entry (POE) like airports and land border checkpoints, in time of a pandemic.

Part of the preparedness activities that were conducted in previous years also includes strengthening these international border crossing points, for example, simulation exercises were conducted at the airport to help airport personnel understand how to deal with sick passengers and case management of suspect Ebola and MERS-CoV cases. This ensures that they are trained and understand how to follow and apply the procedures to prevent the spread of serious diseases at or through international airports.

This was put to the test in March, when the partners had to work together again, to implement the necessary precautions to protect the safety of these frontline workers and travellers and prevent the spread and transmission of COVID-19.

The partners quickly worked on improving data collection from travellers, determining ways of tracking travellers for the required 14-day quarantine period, updated the health declaration form and ensured that COVID-19 samples are collected in a safe and timely manner at the airport.

To illustrate how all this works, we will use the example of a recent China Eastern Airlines flight arriving at Wattay airport from Kunming, China.

Vientiane-based staff from China Eastern Airlines are on the air bridge to meet the flight, with some of the staff in full personal protective equipment in case of emergency needs.

Once the passengers get off the plane, there are posters in the terminal to remind passengers on taking steps to protect themselves to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Thermal scanners are installed to monitor the body temperatures of arriving passengers.
Photo credit: WHO/Irene Tan

Passengers wait in line for their documents to be checked, there are visible marking on the floor indicating how to queue to keep the passengers safe while waiting

The health staff checked the completeness of documents from the passengers, including COVID-19 test results taken before departure and the health declaration form.
Photo credit: WHO/Irene Tan

WHO staff member Leuangvilay Phetdavanh has been working as the focal point for Point-of-Entry since the start of the pandemic. She has helped to review the documents used like the health declaration form, and provided feedback.

In the airport terminal, there are clear markings on the floor to encourage physical distancing as the passengers walk into the immigration hall.

Health staff wait at the COVID-19 sample collection area
Photo credit: WHO/Irene Tan

Samples are collected at the airport before the immigration checks.

Passengers proceed for the immigration checks after the swab collection is completed.

At the baggage collection area, passengers are again reminded by public announcements to practice physical distancing.

Passengers queue at a counter inside the terminal to buy bus tickets as designated bus companies are operating the services that will take them to their quarantine hotels at a fee of LAK 50,000 each.

At the entrance of the bus, the operator checked the hotel destination while providing hand sanitizer to the passenger before boarding.

Dr Mark Jacobs, WHO Representative to Lao People’s Democratic Republic said “WHO is pleased to have supported the coordination of multiple ministries like the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Public Works and Transport, and the Department of Civil Aviation since the start of the pandemic. The management of incoming travellers has been critical in reducing the risk of COVID-19 entering Lao PDR. It has been a central part of the Government’s approach to protecting the people of the country from the pandemic.”