After a successful trial in Hawaii, a United Airlines program to test travelers for the coronavirus and give them rapid results at Newark Liberty International Airport, is ready to be tried out on a flight bound for London next month.
Could this coax nervous travelers back in the skies? United officials are willing to give it a try, based on a positive experience with similar testing conducted on flights between San Francisco and Hawaii they said had doubled the number of passengers in two weeks.
“We are launching the world’s first free Newark to London COVID-19 test pilot, offering rapid testing on a select flight from Newark to Heathrow free of charge,” said Aaron McMillan, United Airlines managing director of operations policy and support. “We guarantee everyone on board will have tested negative.”
The free COVID-19 testing will be offered to passengers on United’s evening flight 14 from Newark Liberty and London Heathrow airports between Nov. 16 and Dec. 11.
The rapid molecular Abbott ID Now COVID-19 test will be administered by Premise Health in a United lounge in Newark to passengers who make an appointment ahead of time. Flight 14 is operates on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Testing is not offered on the return trip from London to Newark.
All passengers, except children age two and younger, would be required to be tested prior to boarding. Other arrangements will be made for customers who refuse to take the test, such as routing them through different airports and rebooking flights on a different day, officials said.
All of United’s other safety protocols, from mandatory mask wearing to using better HEPA grade filters in aircrafts and enhanced cleaning procedures, remain in effect, McMillan said. The assurance that everyone on board the aircraft has tested negative is an “added layer” of safety, he said.
But officials hope government acceptance of negative test results will lead to the eventual lifting of international travel restrictions, based on the experience of this and the Hawaiian testing programs.
The San Francisco to Hawaii voluntary testing allows passengers who take part to present proof of a negative coronavirus test to Hawaiian officials and bypass a 14-day quarantine requirement there, said Josh Earnest, United’s chief spokesman.
“The early returns are very encouraging. In the two weeks since the test option was available for customers, we’ve seen the numbers traveling to Hawaii on United nearly double, compared to the two weeks before the test,” he said.
Customers will be notified when booking the London flight about the test requirement and are given a link to make an appointment, McMillan said. After testing at the airport, they’ll wait for results, which take 10-15 minutes, and once they have then they can go to the gate.
United customers who take the test will still have to comply with United Kingdom quarantine requirements. But airline officials hope the program will build government officials’ confidence to waive those regulations for passengers testing negative, Earnest said.
“We’ll share the (program) results with government officials in the U.K. and the U.S.,” he said. “Customer testing could begin reopening travel, not just here in the U.S., but overseas. It has important potential to reopen international travel trade and commerce.”
The Hawaiian testing program has shown signs of doing that. On Tuesday, Hawaii’s governor announced a similar pre-flight test program will start on Nov. 6 for travelers between Japan and Hawaii. That test is administered in one of 21 medical centers approved by the state.
United officials want to expand the program, but are aware they have to prove to government officials with data and science that the test program works before restrictions are lifted, Earnest said.
The next step?
“We hope to open it up on a round trip basis (between Newark and London), but also to other destinations,” Earnest said.
United officials also have to evaluate the cost of testing. Now, the airline is absorbing it, for the Newark to Heathrow flight, or charging customers a fee, as is done on San Francisco to Hawaii flights. An increase in passengers could be a determining factor. officials said.
Other U.S airports they’d like to roll the program out at include Washington D.C, Dulles Airport, O’Hare in Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles, Earnest said.
“We’re eager to make testing more widely available. The landscape of regulations and requires is quite complex,” he said. “We want to make sure customers get the right test, at the right time.”
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Larry Higgs may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.