June 10, 2023

United Airlines introduces COVID-19 rapid testing program for passengers on limited basis for now

Starting on October 15, United Airlines will offer a COVID-19 testing program for passengers. This makes United the first airlines to provide the service. Passengers will be given the option of ordering an at-home testing kit or to reserve a time for a rapid test at the airport.

The catch to this story is that for now, only passengers from San Francisco flying to Hawaii will have access to this new option. The reason that the Hawaii destination was chosen is that the State of Hawaii has largely been closed to tourists since March. If tourists did come, they were automatically subjected to a two-week quarantine. Next month, with proof of a negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hours prior to arrival, Hawaii will waive its two-week quarantine. Hawaii officials will verify those results as flights come in.

“We really see this as a great opportunity to provide access to testing for our customers, to get them back in the air and traveling as safely as possible,” Aaron McMillan, United’s managing director of operations policy and support, told CBS News transportation correspondent Kris Van Cleave.

Customers will have to pay for the testing. Rapid testing is already available at San Francisco International Airport for airline staff and airport employees. The test takes about 20 minutes from arrival to the result and will cost $250. The home test option is less expensive but the results take longer. The test kit costs $80 plus shipping. The test goes to a San Francisco lab for processing. Customers will have results within 48 hours.

“Being able to identify a positive case and pull them out of a public health situation and put them in isolation, and then be able to kind of winnow that group of potential infectious individuals is really what’s going to have an impact,” said Caroline Savello, the chief commercial officer of Color, a company offering COVID-19 testing.

Two other airports are working with a private company to offer tests to passengers on any airline – Kennedy Airport in New York City and Newark Airport in New Jersey. They are working with a private company, XpresCheck, to provide a rapid test before departure. A recent survey taken by Atmosphere Research survey found three-fourths of flyers support pre-flight coronavirus testing. This makes sense because of the close quarters in which people are sitting and the recycled air on planes. A rapid test before passengers board a plane seems like it would be a good way to mitigate a super spreader event, once air travel gets back to normal levels. Flyers who arrive in Hawaii without a rapid test result will still have to do the two-week quarantine.

United Airlines sees this step as the first one to bringing back international travel for Americans. All of the airlines are pushing for air bridges between major cities like New York and London, with pre-flight COVID-19 tests required for all passengers on board.

American Airlines is looking at offering tests to passengers. Lufthansa also plans to offer tests to passengers next month, and already has testing centers for arriving passengers in Munich and Frankfurt.

Hawaii, heavily dependent on tourism, has been hard hit during the pandemic. According to numbers from Airlines for America, Hawaii is seeing 70% fewer flights, 91% less TSA checkpoint traffic, and 94% less travel into the state compared to usual.

The International Air Transport Association on Tuesday called for coronavirus testing at the airport as a requirement for all passengers and airplane crew members before international flights.

The group, which represents about 290 airlines worldwide, called on governments to set up and fund the testing regimen.

United Airlines’ official statement points to the fact that the airline worked with Hawaii officials and looks at the testing option as a service to customers to increase airline travel.

The airline worked closely with Hawaii officials to ensure that any United customer – both visitors and Hawaiian residents returning home – who tests negative on either test would not be subjected to the state’s current 14-day quarantine requirement. United currently offers more flights to Hawaii than any other major network carrier including daily service between San Francisco and Honolulu (HNL), Maui (OGG) and Kona (KOA). The carrier plans to increase service to Hawaii on October 15, including the resumption of service between San Francisco and Lihue (LIH) and additional flights between San Francisco and Maui and Kona.

“Our new COVID testing program is another way we are helping customers meet their destinations’ entry requirements, safely and conveniently,” said Toby Enqvist, Chief Customer Officer at United. “We’ll look to quickly expand customer testing to other destinations and U.S. airports later this year to complement our state-of-the-art cleaning and safety measures that include a mandatory mask policy, antimicrobial and electrostatic spraying and our hospital-grade HEPA air filtration systems.”

With the air travel industry still devastated due to the coronavirus pandemic, airlines are asking for a second government bail-out to keep afloat and save jobs. This week executives from American Airlines, United Airlines, and JetBlue Airways, as well as from major aviation unions made a last-ditch effort to appeal to the Trump administration for a six-month extension of the payroll support program granted through the $25 billion bailouts from Congress back in March. If a bailout doesn’t come by October 1, airlines will experience what they label as massive furloughs across the industry. It’s hard to imagine, though, that air travel will bounce back to previous levels any time soon, given that lockdowns are still in place across the country and no vaccine available yet.

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