Passengers booked on a dozen New York-London flights next month will be obliged to take a free Covid test before boarding the plane – or be moved to another departure.
United Airlines is running a trial that involves mandatory testing for coronavirus on some flights on its flagship route between New York Newark and London Heathrow.
The pilot scheme applies to flight UA14 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 16 November to 11 December. Participants will be required to book an appointment for a test at Newark Liberty airport before their flight. Every passenger aged two or above will be required to be tested.
The programme is administered by Premise Health, using a “rapid molecular Abbott ID Now Covid-19 test,” which the airline says is “used in clinical settings” and can give a result within 20 minutes.
Anyone who tests positive must contact health authorities and will be able to postpone their trip.
Passengers who test negative will still be required to observe all the usual United Airlines health protocols.
“We will continue to enforce those [precautionary] measures strictly,” said Josh Earnest, the airline’s chief communications officer.
“We’re still going to ask people to socially distance on the jet bridge.
“If we have passengers who refuse to wear masks, that will be the last United flight they take in the era of coronavirus.”
On arrival at Heathrow Terminal 2, passengers will be obliged to self-isolate for two weeks in line with government regulations. The fact that they have tested negative before departure will be disregarded by the UK’s public health authorities.
Mr Earnest said: “We’re not second-guessing decisions that government officials are making.”
But United hopes the trial will provide data to support pre-flight testing as a means to reduce or eliminate quarantine.
The initial move will distinguish United from its rivals between New York and London: American, British Airways, Delta and Virgin Atlantic.
During a media briefing, United revealed that the average load on flight UA14, aboard a Boeing 787-10 with more than 300 seats, is between 50 and 100.
The airline expects to move to an “end state model” that involves testing outside the airport as well. It also plans to expand testing to Washington Dulles, Chicago O’Hare, Houston Intercontinental and Denver.
United already employ pre-flight testing between San Francisco and Hawaii. The island state requires visitors either to quarantine for two weeks or to produce a negative test result from a “Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (NAAT)” from a certified laboratory within 72 hours from the final leg of departure.
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The airline says it has “seen a positive impact on travel demand and significant increases in customer load factors and revenue when testing options are available”.
Ticket sales between San Francisco and Hawaii almost doubled when tests were introduced, even though passengers had to cover the cost of tests.
A rival carrier, Hawaiian Airlines, has just opened a drive-through, pre-travel Covid-19 testing service near San Francisco airport.
Avi Mannis, senior vice president of marketing at the airline, said: “We want pre-travel testing to be as convenient for our guests as ordering and picking up a cup of coffee on the go.”
The service costs $150 (£120).