Over the last several weeks, a number of airlines have announced programs that test passengers for COVID-19 before they get on a flight.
They’re hoping that adding rapid tests as an extra safety precaution will re-energize travelers who have been sidelined for months.
Starting Monday, the Brentwood health care company Premise Health will implement a new COVID-19 testing program for United Airlines flights from Newark, New Jersey to London, U.K.
Every passenger and crew member over two years old will take a rapid COVID-19 test at an airport lounge before boarding. If someone won’t take the test, they’ll be booked on a different flight.
This is a pilot program only operating on three flights per week. The program starts on Nov. 16 and runs through Dec. 11.
Once passengers arrive in the U.K., they’ll still have to self-isolate for 14 days, according to that country’s current travel restrictions. United plans to share the results of the program with officials in the U.S. and the U.K. They hope to show that rapid tests could be an alternative to mandatory quarantines.
Premise will be using the Abbott ID NOW device to test passengers, which can deliver test results within minutes.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, positive results from these kinds of rapid tests are usually very accurate, but negative results may need to be confirmed with a molecular test. The molecular tests are more accurate, but can take a few days to produce results.
The FDA approved the ID NOW device for emergency use earlier this year. However, the emergency approval notes the device is supposed to be used on people that a doctor suspects have the coronavirus within the first seven days of experiencing symptoms.
A press release from Abbott notes that its test accurately identifies positive results more than 93% of the time. However, those results come from patients in urgent care centers, hospitals and nursing homes rather than people who believe they’re healthy, like the passengers on an airplane.
Jami Doucette, president of Premise Health, said the tests aren’t perfect, but that the goal isn’t perfection. The point is to increase safety.
“No test is perfect,” he said. “I would liken it to a belt and suspenders approach. How do you create the safest environment for flying? That’s the target. Adding the layer of antigen testing for every passenger on the manifest adds another layer of safety to that environment.”
United requires passengers and staff to wear masks on flights, and will kick passengers off flights if they refuse to comply. The airline also offers touchless check in for customers and requires passengers to take an online health assessment before flying.
Robert Einhorn, a representative from United, described the rapid testing as just another layer of protection. Passengers on these flights will still wear masks and follow the airline’s normal COVID-19 safety precautions.
“This testing program is the latest addition to United’s layered approach to safety and another way the airline is helping to curb the spread of the virus,” Einhorn wrote in an email. “It is an additional aspect to help our customers feel safer traveling and we hope it will build further confidence in the travel experience.”
Other airlines are also suing coronavirus testing to restore the confidence of travelers. American Airlines is partnering with the urgent care chain CareNow—part of Nashville-based HCA—to offer rapid testing for passengers at the Dallas airport. Alaska Airlines is working with a San Francisco health care company to provide rapid testing for passengers at pop-up clinics on the West Coast.
The safety offered by more testing and the ability to skip long quarantines is showing signs that it could give the travel industry a boost. In October, Hawaii started allowing travelers with negative coronavirus test results to skip a 14-day quarantine upon arrival.
United started offering rapid COVID-19 tests to passengers on flights from San Francisco to Hawaii. The company says bookings jumped 95% in the first 10 days.
"If it drives greater demand for air travel or greater comfort among business or leisure passengers on some of those routes with greater restrictions I can absolutely see more airlines considering this as a strategy,” Doucette said.
In an email, Einhorn wrote that United is hoping to expand the program to other destinations, and that United believes rapid testing will be critical for restarting travel.
This push by airlines comes at a time when new coronavirus cases are surging across the U.S. The average number of new cases per day has increased by about 150% since Hawaii started allowing travelers to bypass quarantines about a month ago. On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 194,000 new cases in the U.S., the highest number ever.
That means travelers should expect to live with multiple layers of safety precautions for quite some time.
“If a vaccine comes in a reasonably short period of time I think that will be a more powerful safety mechanism,” Doucette said. “But still for a while it's going to be a bit of a belt and suspenders approach.”