United trials rapid Covid tests for New York-London

Fast testing is increasingly seen as a way to restart travel on lucrative air routes.

By Bloomberg News, October 30 2020
United trials rapid Covid tests for New York-London

United Airlines will offer rapid coronavirus testing on flights to London from Newark, New Jersey, in a bid to show governments that a pre-departure testing regime can provide a way to ease strict quarantine rules.

The pilot program, running from November 16 to December 11, also is aimed at giving customers on the trans-Atlantic route “an added layer of peace of mind,” United spokesman Josh Earnest said.

U. and British airlines have been seeking government approvals for an “air bridge” between the New York City area and London’s Heathrow Airport that would relax isolation rules and spur international business travel.

Corporate tickets and overseas routes are traditionally among the most profitable and have been especially hard hit during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We’re not second-guessing the decisions that government officials are making,” Earnest said on a call with reporters. “This is not sketching out on the back of a cocktail napkin what this would look like. This is actually showing them.”

United will offer the Abbott Laboratories 'ID Now' rapid molecular tests free for passengers booked on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday flight.

The program is for one United flight and will be conducted in a terminal lounge at Newark-Liberty International Airport, outside New York.

Results from the test, the same one United uses for international crews, will be available within 20 minutes.

Passengers who test positive won’t be allowed to board, and a negative result won’t exempt the traveler from the UK’s 14-day quarantine. Customers who don’t want to participate will be rebooked on another flight.

United is betting that a free, fast coronavirus test could stimulate travel or lure customers from another airline. The 318-seat Boeing 787-10 that’s used on the United flight has been operating with 50-100 passengers, Earnest said.

The Chicago-based carrier began offering US$250 virus tests this month in San Francisco for flights to Hawaii after the state allowed travelers with negative results to skip a two-week quarantine on arrival.

Rebooting overseas travel for Australians

As previously reported, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce believes preflight Covid-19 tests could also restart international travel for Australians and remove the need for quarantine, even before a vaccine is widely available.

“There’s some great developments in testing that could resolve the issue of people needing to go into quarantine,” Joyce noted at the CAPA Australia Pacific Aviation Summit held on September 2.

Those tests are “potentially super-fast, 15 minutes or so,” Joyce recounted, “to test whether you’re exposed to Covid-19, which means if you pass there’s no need to be in quarantine at the other end.”

This would unlock countries “that have like levels of transmission – New Zealand, maybe Japan, maybe some other counties in Asia – then you could see ‘bubbles’ opening up one by one.”

As a prelude to or in conjunction with the establishment of those travel bubbles, the Federal Government is also considering allowing travellers arriving from low-risk countries to spend their 14-day quarantine period in the comfort of their home rather than paying for a hotel.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says that a ‘traffic light’ system would rank nations according to how they were tracking with Covid-19 infections.

Passengers coming from ‘red’ countries and regions would continue to spend a fortnight in hotel isolation, while arrivals from ‘amber’ destinations may be allowed to quarantine at home, potentially with GPS-enabled electronic wristbands to enforce home quarantine.

Entry from a country or territory zoned ‘green’ would not require any quarantine period – as is now the case for travellers arriving from New Zealand into selected Australian airports, and would apply to future two-way 'travel bubbles' – provided they haven’t visited any ‘amber’ or ‘red’ destinations in the previous 14 days.

Read more: Australian Government considers home isolation for overseas arrivals

Additional reporting by David Flynn

This article is published under license from Bloomberg Media: the original article can be viewed here