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United is the First U.S. Airline to Offer “COVID Free” Flights with Pre-Flight Testing Trial

United is the First U.S. Airline to Offer “COVID Free” Flights with Pre-Flight Testing Trial

In the absence of any meaningful support from the Trump administration, United Airlines is starting to build its own infrastructure for rapid pre-flight COVID-19 testing with select flights from Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) to London Heathrow (LHR) to be labelled “COVID free”.

United will become the first major U.S. airline and the first transatlantic carrier to offer free pre-flight rapid testing during a short trial from November 16 through December 11. During the trial period, passengers who decline the voluntary test will be booked onto an alternative flight which isn’t part of the trial.

Photo Credit: Jason Leung via Unsplash

The aviation industry believes pre-flight COVID-19 testing is the only way to safely ramp up airline schedules and boost travel demand while giving governments around the world the confidence to lift travel restrictions and ease quarantine rules.

The problem, however, is that many governments, including in the United States, have so far failed to embrace the idea. Despite labelling the flights as ‘COVID free’, the trial won’t release passengers from a mandatory 14-day quarantine on their arrival in London.

But United hopes its trial might help swing the balance and convince governments to ease up even as Coronavirus cases surge on both sides of the Atlantic. “We believe the ability to provide fast, same-day COVID-19 testing will play a vital role in safely reopening travel around the world and navigating quarantines and travel restrictions, particularly to key international destinations like London,” explained United’s chief customer officer, Toby Enqvist on Thursday.

“Through this pilot program, we’ll guarantee that everyone on board has tested negative for COVID-19, adding another element to our layered approach to safety,” Enqvist continued.

United already offers rapid pre-flight testing at an additional cost for passengers travelling to Hawaii from San Francisco. The tests allow passengers to skip quarantine on arrival and has resulted in demand jumping 95 per cent over the first two weeks after Hawaii reopened to tourists.

For now, the Newark – London trial will be on a much smaller scale. Passengers over the age of two onboard United Airlines flight UA14, departing on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays will have to take a free rapid test or face being moved to an alternative flight.

The intention, though, is pretty clear and United is signalling that it would like to see pre-flight tests a mandatory requirement to fly on certain routes. The requirement also includes all crew members.

Partnering with Premise Health, the tests can take as little as 15-minutes to return a result but passengers are being advised to get to the airport at least three hours before departure and must pre-book a slot beforehand.

Other trials are also underway in several other countries. In Italy, flag carrier Alitalia has been offering its own COVID Free flights on select services between Rome and Milan. Alitalia also allows passengers to present a private negative test certificate dated within 72-hours of travel as proof they aren’t infected.

And in Austria, a small-scale trial is taking place at Vienna Airport on just one flight operated by Austrian Airlines to Berlin. Again, the airline is making use of rapid COVID-19 tests that can return a result between 10 to 15 minutes. Passengers have a swab administered straight after check-in and results are sent by text message to their mobile phones.

Unlike traditional PCR tests, the rapid COVID-19 tests generally have a slightly lower sensitivity rate meaning they have a higher risk of giving a false negative result.

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