Collinson joins the dots as I return to the skies

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

Across a gloriously lit Discovery Bay, a jet plane soars through the early evening skies above the hills towards some far-off destination. Likely as not in these COVID-scourged days of low passenger traffic, it’s a cargo flight, cargo being one of few elements of the travel business that has held steady during the crisis.

Hong Kong International Airport served just 60,000 passengers last month, and while that represents a seemingly heady +89% increase on the same month last year, the real and brutal comparison lies with the pre-COVID month of April 2019 when 6.5 million passengers poured through this wonderful airport. Read the math and grimace, passenger numbers are currently not even 1% of pre-COVID ‘normality’ levels.

In just three days time, I will bolster the no-doubt lowly May numbers by one (two, actually, as my wife is flying with me), as I board BA32 to London Heathrow. It will be almost precisely ten months since I last flew and I feel a mixture of excitement and apprehension about the prospect.

Excitement at the joy of flight again, of being able to sit inside a giant steel bird and soar across the skies to a place some 9,600 kilometres away in just a few hours. Excitement at watching the seatback flight map and taking in the wonder and curiosity of what lies below me in all those places that pop up along the way. Excitement, of course, in seeing my family after ten long months of being apart.

Apprehension? Yes, even for me, an inveterate traveller, this feels like a new and daunting experience. For weeks I have been fretting about all the pre- and post-flight testing to deal with, the home quarantine in London (and the prospect of a 21-day hotel equivalent upon return); the uncertainty of the COVID situation in the UK and potentially here in Hong Kong by the time of my return; the prospect of travel protocols and quarantine restrictions changing while I am away.

But I am fully vaccinated, which lends comfort, and now, thanks to the outstanding team at Collinson here in Hong Kong, I am unusually well-informed of the necessary procedures in the days ahead.

Collinson, well-known I am sure to most readers of this Blog, is a diverse group specialised in a wide array of traveller-related services, from passenger lounges to loyalty programmes to insurance and protection.

Since the pandemic’s early days, the company has pivoted with impressive speed into the whole area of COVID testing and other related support services. As part of its mission to help the recovery of sectors impacted by COVID-19 – of which travel is among the hardest hit – it was the first organisation to set up testing facilities in a UK airport (Heathrow). It also offers the widest range of tests (RT-PCR, RT-LAMP, antigen and antibody) at competitive prices.

From administrating tests to providing results, Collinson delivers what it dubs a turn-key solution. All its protocols are overseen by in-house medical experts, and, dependent on test type, are carried out either on site or with the company’s accredited testing partners. Its solutions are tailored to individual or corporate requirements, and can include models such as test-and-release, test-to-fly, test-on-arrival, and others based on destination entry requirements. Welcome then to the new parlance of air travel.

So why not try out the service? That’s precisely what I am doing and yesterday I caught up with the company’s Head of Marketing Communications Asia Pacific Nicki Houghton, and Senior Manager Careen Chen, who is Collinson’s APAC Testing Proposition owner. I’m going with Collinson the whole way to track and report a very different kind of traveller journey to that I might have taken in this same month two years ago.

With my trusty Collinson advisors Careen Chen (left) and Nicki Houghton

Nicki and Careen met me for coffee at IFC Mall in Central, arriving with a neat little gift bag that looked like it might be carrying a set of fragrances but instead held two RT-PCR COVID-19 test kits.

For those not in the know – and I wasn’t – a RT-PCR COVID-19 test deploys WHO-approved reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test technology. It is designed to detect the presence of unique genomic markers of the SARS-CoV-2 virus – the villain behind COVID-19.

You wouldn’t want to appear on Mastermind against these two, given their fantastic specialist subject knowledge on COVID-19 testing and procedures. But the impressive thing was how they made something potentially uber-complicated so straightforward. “It’s new ground for all of us,” says Nicki, “and it’s changing at rapid speed.

“Our ultimate goal since the pandemic began has been to support the travel industry’s recovery. Until there is full vaccination, safe, robust accessible testing is the focus of the company.”

Collinson spends much time advising companies to ensure they have appropriate support measures in place for staff who are travelling. “There is a huge gap in understanding corporate duty of care,” Careen says, in citing just one of the issues companies and individuals face. It’s not just about travel and testing guidelines, she adds, but also about a company’s responsibilities towards its employees.

Collinson aims to be there for its clients, pre-, during and post-trip. “We’re in a unique position between the medical, travel and business communities,” comments Nikki. “We are connecting all the dots.”

“Nowadays, travel and the testing portion of it alone can be really quite confusing; you’ve got so many different regulations to navigate,” adds Careen. In essence, Collinson aims to remove the confusion and help the travel industry back to recovery by getting individuals and companies back on the move, safely and confidently. Both Nicki and Careen have a palpable sense of mission about their work, knowing that they are part of something important in a troubled and for too long disconnected world.

Careen emailed me a carefully laid-out schedule of what I can expect over the next few days. As promised, my pre-departure testing kit has arrived through one of Collinson’s key testing partners in Hong Kong, Prenetics. This test must be conducted in the 72 hours before travel.

If (hopefully when) I get a negative result, I will be free to fly. When I reach London (having registered online and created a profile) I will undergo one of two PCR Tests-on-Arrival (TOA) – ‘Day 2+8’. As Hong Kong has been labelled by the UK as an ‘Amber’ location (ridiculous, don’t they realise there have been barely any local cases here in weeks and that Hong Kong is one of the safest places on the planet?), the UK government currently requires passengers from the SAR to do a test prior to Day 2 and another on/after Day 8 of their arrival. Or you can have an optional Test-to-Release on Day 5 (see below).

As we’re arriving at the ungodly hour of 04.50, I feared that Collinson’s on-site testing facility at Heathrow would not be open (in which case the company had kindly arranged for us to do the first of our TOAs at a Collinson testing site of our choice between Day 0 and Day 2). However given the currently slower speed of passenger processing at Heathrow on arrival, we will be good to go for our TOA when the facility opens at 7am, Careen now advises.

Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? On 4 June (Day 5) we have the option of a Test-to-Release (TTR) that enables early release from quarantine pending a negative test result. Again, this can be taken at a Collinson testing site of our choice.

On 7 June (Day 8) comes the second of the two TOAs – this is still mandatory, if one opts for a TTR. Another visit to the Collinson testing site, then, and I should be a free man of London.

Collinson’s range of traveller services runs a lot deeper than the one I am requiring. As Nicki explains, it  can range from something as simple as lounge access all the way through the journey to emergency repatriation. “It really does depend on the type of customer and the client and what type of travel their company is undertaking,” she says of Collinson’s corporate services.

Fundamental, though, is access to support services, if necessary, throughout the journey. “So at any time, 24/7, they can pick up the phone, contact someone and ask for support. That’s a big thing that we offer through our network of medical doctors and nurses and so we can give that advice if necessary.”

Apprehension? Nah, after reading over Careen’s instructions, I’m raring to go. It’s time to travel.

The closest I have come to an overseas trip in ten months is via my regular ferry rides between Discovery Bay and Central. Now I can experience the real thing again at last.