American Airlines and BA trial COVID testing on trans-Atlantic flights instead of quarantine rules

American Airlines and British Airways will trial free COVID-19 tests.

andrew caballero-reynolds/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

American Airlines

and British Airways

have launched a coronavirus testing trial in an effort to persuade the U.S. and UK governments that testing can restart international travel and remove the need for passengers to quarantine on arrival.

The trial, which is also being operated through the ‘Oneworld’ airline alliance, will aim to collect data from at least 500 passengers on flights from three U.S. cities to London Heathrow, by asking them to take three free COVID-19 tests as part of their journey: one before departure, one on landing, and one three days after arrival.

The third test is intended to further confirm the results of the first two tests, to show that preflight testing will allow travel to safely restart, AA, BA and Oneworld said in a joint statement.

The trial will run from Nov. 25 to mid December. Data collected from the trial will be aggregated by independent scientists and shared with U.K. ministers, to help persuade them to drop a 14-day quarantine rule for arrivals from most countries.

Read: United Airlines tests COVID-19 ‘health pass’ to kick-start global travel again

United Airlines

has also introduced a COVID testing trial, with the first volunteers arriving at Heathrow on Nov. 17 on flight UA14 from Newark Liberty International Airport. The airline uses the Abbott ID Now COVID-19 test. 

One of the 37 passengers on the flight tested positive before boarding, and was told to postpone their journey.

Last week, German airline Lufthansa
introduced mandatory preflight testing on specific flights between Munich and Hamburg. The tests are free, and passengers who don’t wish to be tested can rebook their flight free of charge 

Under current U.K. government policies, international travelers arriving in the U.K. from the U.S. are required to self-isolate for 14 days even if they have tested negative for COVID-19.

Read: Heathrow boss was hopeful of London-New York air bridge by Thanksgiving

Sean Doyle, chief executive of BA, which is owned by International Consolidated Airlines
said this measure is holding back the U.K., as major economies like Germany are adopting testing to replace quarantine.

“For people arriving from countries with high infection
rates, a further test on arrival should then release them from quarantine,”
Doyle said.

AA Chief Executive Doug Parker said the results provided by this trial will be “vital for reopening trans-Atlantic travel safely.”

Read: Here are the winners and losers in Europe from the Pfizer vaccine news

The tests will initially be offered on selected BA flights to London Heathrow from New York John F. Kennedy International Airport and Los Angeles, and on selected AA flights from Dallas/Fort Worth to Heathrow.

They will later be offered to passengers on selected AA flights from JFK to Heathrow.

Research from industry body the International Air Transport Association suggests the risk of contracting COVID-19 on aircraft is extremely low, with just 44 cases of COVID-19 recorded as linked to flights, since the start of 2020. Over the same period, some 1.2 billion passengers have traveled.

A study by Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health published on Oct. 27 found that a robust, multilayered strategy can effectively reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 during air travel.

“Our team found that, together with their high-performing ventilation systems, the actions that the airlines put in place — including mandatory use of face masks — significantly reduce risks of viral transmission aboard an airplane,” said Leonard Marcus, co-director of the Aviation Public Health Initiative.

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