Leading travel and airline industry figures have urged the prime minister to replace blanket quarantine measures with regional travel corridors.
In a letter to Boris Johnson, they said the 14-day quarantine for people coming from Spain had caused disruption.
It was “the latest significant blow to a sector which now risks being permanently scarred”, they added.
They called for quarantine-free travel to areas unaffected by any spike in coronavirus cases.
This would include not just Spain, but other key markets for trade and tourism, such as the US and Canada.
“We are in a situation where the government is advising against travel to areas of Spain that have lower rates of Covid than the UK,” the letter said.
“We urgently request a meeting with you to discuss the challenge facing our sector and our proposed ways forward,” the letter concluded.
Virus tests ‘no silver bullet’
Among the nearly 50 signatories of the letter were British Airways chief executive Alex Cruz, Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye and Airlines UK chief executive Tim Alderslade.
Travel industry chiefs are seeking ways to rescue the holiday season.
Their intervention came after Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told the BBC that coronavirus testing at airports was not a “silver bullet” to stop the need for quarantine, because the virus could develop over time.
The government’s sudden change to travel advice for Spain at the weekend prompted a fresh wave of confusion and uncertainty to people’s holiday plans.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps returned home early from his own Spanish holiday on Wednesday and will now begin two weeks’ quarantine, but he defended the government’s decision.
“We had to act when we did. The figures since have shown why that was required. I’m desperately sad and sorry for people who have lost their holidays,” he said.
Travel firm Tui said on Wednesday it had cancelled holidays to the Balearics and Canary Islands until 4 August after the UK extended its advice against non-essential travel to Spain to include its islands.
Mr Holland-Kaye told the BBC’s Today programme the confusion caused by the changes to guidance over Spain showed the need for an alternative.
He said airports should be allowed to test for coronavirus to avoid the “cliff-edge” of quarantine.
Heathrow’s financial results, out on Wednesday, showed passengers all but stopped travel in the three months to June, falling by 96% on a year ago as global aviation came to a virtual standstill. Revenue was 85% lower than last year at £119m.
Mr Holland-Kaye said: “Today’s results should serve as a clarion call for the government – the UK needs a passenger testing regime and fast. Without it, Britain is just playing a game of quarantine roulette.”
He said he wanted the government to work with the company on the plan and he could have testing sites set and ready “within weeks”.
But Mr Dowden quashed the idea, saying: “We are not at the point where there is a viable alternative to the 14-day quarantine.”
However, he added that all options were under review.
Other countries are operating airport testing. It is voluntary – and free – at some German airports now although it may become mandatory, as it is in France for arrivals from high-risk countries such as the US and Brazil.
The Netherlands approach is to single out people coming from specific areas with high levels of infections – such as a few named regions in Spain and the UK city of Leicester and urge them to self-isolate.
Dr Hans Kluge, Europe regional director for the World Health Organization, endorsed testing at airports as part of general attempts to track the movement of coronavirus.
He told the Today programme: “Testing is never wrong – whether at airports, community or drive-in centres – what’s the difference between day-to-day life and travelling?”
Mr Holland-Kaye said a UK airport test would cost about £150 each, and passengers would be expected to pay.
He acknowledged that was “not cheap”, but that the test would come down over time as more people took it.
The idea of introducing testing at airports is an attractive idea. The theory being people could travel where they like and just get tested as they arrive back in the country, negating the need to self-isolate.
But the government is not convinced.
Why? Logistically testing all the travellers who arrive every week will be difficult.
Testing capacity has increased but this would stretch the system. Not to mention the practical difficulties of setting up testing facilities in busy airports.
But the other factor, which is perhaps more crucial, is that in the early stages of infection the test may not even pick it up.
Instead, officials are much more persuaded by a more intelligent, targeted approach to self-isolation.
That would involve asking only those coming from certain regions in a country where the infection rates are highest to self-isolate.
That could then be complemented by then asking them to get tested after a week, meaning if they test negative, there would be no need for the full 14-day self-isolation.
All this and more is being discussed behind the scenes.
Mr Holland-Kaye said: “The aim would be to have a test on arrival. We could have it up and running in the next two weeks.”
He said the plan would be for passengers to go into quarantine and have another test after eight days: “If they were infected we would be confident that it had shown itself. If it was clear, they would be allowed to go out of quarantine earlier than had been the case. It’s very scientifically based.”
The government is said to be considering an eight-day stretch between tests.
The number of days required between each test is critical in reducing the possibility of “false negative” results from people not yet showing symptoms.
Under current rules, those arriving in the UK from certain countries must self-isolate for 14 days.