As COVID rates rise with no federal help in sight, airlines hope testing passengers will help ease travel concerns

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IMAGE VIA TAMPA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT | FACEBOOK
  • Image via Tampa International Airport | Facebook
As the travel industry tries to claw its way out of the COVID-induced recession, each sector within the industry must find the balance between providing a welcoming, easy experience for guests and meeting health protocols the best way possible. Airlines have seen tens of thousands laid off and year-over-year traffic is down 65%, while the Senate continues to block recession relief efforts that could help the industry and positive cases rapidly spread throughout the nation.

These seemingly overwhelming challenges have caused airlines to get creative in their attempts to soothe travelers' concerns. In September, United was the first airline to announce COVID-19 testing for travelers to select destinations. That pilot program was quickly followed by similar plans by Hawaiian and Alaska Airlines. All three of those programs involved passengers heading to Hawaii from the U.S. mainland. American Airlines also rolled out a plan to test passengers on flights between Miami and Jamaica, making it the first international flight from the U.S. to do so.



Passengers on a flight to Tunisia were all tested for COVID-19 before departing from Dubai. Emirates is the first airline to conduct on-site rapid COVID-19 tests for passengers. - IMAGE VIA EMIRATES
  • Image via Emirates
  • Passengers on a flight to Tunisia were all tested for COVID-19 before departing from Dubai. Emirates is the first airline to conduct on-site rapid COVID-19 tests for passengers.

United then began increasing its testing offerings, including a recent rollout of what it is billing as the “world's first free transatlantic COVID-19 testing pilot program.” All passengers over 2 years old on select flights from Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) to London Heathrow (LHR) will be required to pass a rapid test before boarding.

"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," said Toby Enqvist, chief customer officer for United. "Through this pilot program, we'll guarantee that [all customers over 2 years of age] on board has tested negative for COVID-19, adding another element to our layered approach to safety. United will continue to lead on testing, while at the same time exploring new solutions that contribute to the safest travel experience possible."



This new program will be required, unlike the previous pre-flight testing for passengers traveling Airport to Hawaii. The Hawaii program allows passengers to opt in to the test, which then permits them to skip the required two-week quarantine in Hawaii.

A volunteer traveler on the inaugural transatlantic trial of CommonPass prepares to board the flight from London to Newark. The CommonPass health pass allows travelers to securely share their COVID status across international borders while protecting their privacy. - IMAGE VIA BUSINESS WIRE | COMMONPASS
  • Image via Business Wire | CommonPass
  • A volunteer traveler on the inaugural transatlantic trial of CommonPass prepares to board the flight from London to Newark. The CommonPass health pass allows travelers to securely share their COVID status across international borders while protecting their privacy.

United also spearheaded the inaugural transatlantic trial of the CommonPass digital health pass program that allows travelers to share their COVID-19 test status across international borders via a secure mobile app. The program lets passengers arriving at Newark Liberty International Airport from London Heathrow pass more easily through customs more quickly thanks to the confirmed negative tests.

Reliable tests that are recognized in multiple countries is viewed as a major step forward for international travel. “Without the ability to trust COVID-19 tests — and eventually vaccine records — across international borders, many countries will feel compelled to retain full travel bans and mandatory quarantines for as long as the pandemic persists,” said Dr. Bradley Perkins, chief medical officer of the Commons Project and former chief strategy officer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “With trusted individual health data, countries can implement more nuanced health screening requirements for entry.”

While a few airlines are now rolling out their own testing programs, some airports are taking matters into their own hands by offering all passengers on-site testing. Tampa International Airport was the first in-airport testing program when it launched its pilot program in early October in partnership with BayCare Health System.

Flights where testing was available have seen a dramatic increase in traffic. During the first 10 days of the San Francisco-to-Hawaii program, United saw a 95% increase in passenger traffic compared to the prior two weeks.

PHOTO VIA UNITED/FACEBOOK
  • Photo via United/Facebook
Testing isn’t enough, as the recent SeaDream cruise in the Caribbean discovered. That cruise saw all passengers and crew tested numerous times, yet a positive case still occurred aboard, quickly spreading to more than a half-dozen positive cases in the ensuing 96 hours. Some have speculated that a lack of mask requirements may have played a role, though, at this point, it's still unclear how the virus got onto the ship and how it spread once onboard.

Still, the tests can help bring some peace of mind, as some of them have a more than 97% accuracy. This, in theory, means far fewer infected travelers could be on a flight. Hopefully, this is enough for the airline industry to soothe travelers' fears and provide airlines a much-needed uptick in traffic.


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