United Airlines Introduces Airport COVID-19 Testing

Filed Under: United

United Airlines is becoming the first US airline to launch a COVID-19 testing program that could make travel easier. We know that we need more accessible testing to make travel easier, though that’s an area where the US isn’t doing a great job.

United Airlines’ coronavirus testing

Hawaii is planning on reopening to tourists as of October 15, 2020. Since March the state has required all arriving travelers to undergo a 14-day quarantine, which is more or less a deal breaker when it comes to tourism.

As of October 15, the state will let visitors skip the mandatory quarantine in conjunction with pre-travel testing. Specifically, travelers will need to get tested no more than 72 hours before their flight arrives in Hawaii.

The challenge is that in many parts of the US it’s tough to both get tested and get the results on short notice, and that’s where this new initiative helps. In fairness, in the case of Hawaii, if you don’t have your results in time, you can simply quarantine until you do get the results.

Starting on October 15, customers traveling on United Airlines from San Francisco (SFO) to Hawaii will have the option to take a rapid test at the airport, or to take a self-collected, mail-in test ahead of travel.

The airline has worked with Hawaii officials to ensure that any United customer who tests negative with either test won’t be subjected to the quarantine.

Let’s talk about how these two testing options work:

Option #1: airport rapid-test

United Airlines has partnered with GoHealth Urgent Care and Dignity Health to administer rapid Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 tests. These tests provide results in approximately 15 minutes, and will be available to United customers on the same day as their flight departing SFO.

Customers can schedule visits online in advance for the on-site testing facility that is located in the international terminal. The testing area will be available from 9AM until 6PM PT daily — those seem like very limited hours, given that many United flights to Hawaii depart before 9AM.

This testing option will cost $250, so that’s steep, but also not surprising given the hassle factor of getting tested otherwise.

Option #2: pre-travel self-collection test

As an alternative to the airport testing option, passengers can instead use a mail-in test option that will be administered by Color. United will email customers traveling from San Francisco to Hawaii an invitation to purchase their physician-ordered Color self-collection kit at least 10 days prior to departure.

Travelers should then collect their own samples at home 72 hours prior to their departure, and return their test via overnight mail, or to a drop box at SFO.

Color then processes these tests at their local, CLIA-certified COVID-19 testing laboratory and returns results via text and/or email within 24-48 hours.  The self-collection kit includes a plastic collection tube, a non-invasive nasal swab, and instructions on how to properly collect a specimen.

The cost of this is $80 per test, so it’s less than a third of the cost of the testing at SFO.

Bottom line

United Airlines has become the first US airline to launch a COVID-19 testing program. That’s great news, and also kind of sad — I can’t believe it took over six months into the pandemic for a single US airline to even offer a for-profit testing option.

We’re increasingly seeing destinations open to visitors, but with requirements to get tested within 48-72 hours of travel. In many areas it’s tough to get tested and get a result that quickly, so in that sense this development from United is great.

This is definitely a step in the right direction. Now we just need this on a much more widespread, and ideally affordable, basis.

What do you make of United’s new testing for SFO to Hawaii flights?

  1. While the intentions are good, wouldn’t it be better if United partnered with the big pharmacies (Walgreens, CVS, Rite-Aid, etc) and have passengers drop into the stores to take the test a day or before they are to fly? I would guess attempting to get this done at the airport might be a nightmare in a lot of situations.

  2. I wonder if there’s any type of verification for the mail in test. I suppose anyone can just stick the swab in their dog’s nose to ensure a negative test?

  3. The United States has tested more individuals than the rest of the world combined, Ben. Politely GTFO with your assertation that the USA lags the world in testing.

  4. Confused. Half of united’s hawaii flights from SFO leave at or before 9am. How are you supposed to do a test if this opens at 9am?

  5. @ Tyler — That’s not what I said. I was talking specifically about testing in relation to travel, which is an area where the US isn’t doing well based on how few airport testing centers there are, and how tough it is to get tested within 48-72 hours of travel, which is required for many destinations.

    And I think this is the perfect example of how much the US is lagging when it comes to airport testing. It’s newsworthy that one airline is offering testing at one airport for travel to one state for $250, while other countries are testing passenger for free, or very little.

  6. What is a GTFO?
    And I don’t think you can go by raw numbers, you have to look at %s.

    Also why is it costing 250? It should be free or at cost if it’s intended to be widely disseminated.

  7. I love the blatant disregard for logic that the state of Hawaii is pushing here. So let’s walk through it:

    You don’t need to get tested before you travel to Hawaii, but you will have to quarantine when you get there.

    You can get tested days before a flight and then live your life before traveling and then skip quarantine, if you are negative.

    You can get tested at the airport and then skip quarantine, if you are negative.

    So someone can test negative three days before a flight and do god knows what prior to the flight, contract the ro, and then sit next to someone who is negative for 6 hours.

    Such an absolute charade. Maybe just don’t travel if you are scared of the boogie man.

  8. @AT – I love people like you. Stuff isn’t just “free”. It has to be paid for somewhere. Do you want to pay for the test yourself, or pay $250 more for your ticket? Either way, you’re paying buddy.

  9. @ Business Guy — Obviously it’s not a perfect system, but the models that Hawaii is going off of suggest that 80-90% of cases entering Hawaii would be stopped with a testing requirement like this. Of course with a massive influx of tourists, that might still be more than Hawaii can handle…

  10. @Tyler – The US has not tested the most per capita, so you politely GTFO with your assertion that overall testing is the most important statistic.

    California has a huge capacity for testing, and getting an appointment same day or within a reasonable timeframe is very easy. We’re nowhere near hitting our daily testing capacity per day, so why would anyone pay for one of the options above provided by United? I urge people to go out and get tested (honestly, it’s become so easy). One of the best ways to get out of this shutdown is by bringing the positivity rate down, and catching non-symptomatic and pre-symptomatic individuals.

  11. There are options for at home testing that have turn around times of 48-72 hours and cost less than this. $250 is ridiculous.

  12. I have the same question as @peetyrd “I wonder if there’s any type of verification for the mail in test. I suppose anyone can just stick the swab in their dog’s nose to ensure a negative test?”

  13. @ Business Guy – That boogie man you are referring to has killed over 200,000 people in this country in 8 months, so maybe you shouldn’t be listening to your Dear Leader for advice on this topic and listen to health experts instead.

  14. “The challenge is that in many parts of the US it’s tough to both get tested and get the results on short notice, and that’s where this new initiative helps.”…..well San Francisco is most certainly not one of those parts of the US.

  15. ABBOTT ID now is PCR. The newer test BINAX NOW is not- but these guys are doing ID NOW- which is why Hawaii would accept.

  16. I agree that COVID testing of locals should be insured or free to ensure the safety of residents, but comparing travel testing vs. local testing to ensure people’s safety, the essential difference is it is a privilege to travel right now, and paying a premium to travel (though in the format of a COVID test), especially at this time, sounds very reasonable to me.

  17. ““The challenge is that in many parts of the US it’s tough to both get tested and get the results on short notice, and that’s where this new initiative helps.”…..well San Francisco is most certainly not one of those parts of the US.”

    Indeed. San Francisco is testing ~ 0.5% of its population *daily*.

    However, even with the legitimate negatives about this process that have been raised above, it’s pretty clear United is doing this in SF not because testing is hard to come by in SF, but because it’s their biggest gateway to Hawaii (at worst 2nd biggest to LAX).

  18. Meanwhile… Helsinki Airport is using sniffer dogs trained to smell out people infected with the virus. They are, allegedly, “Close to 100% accuracy”, which is better than these tests, and the dogs can smell out the virus in concentrations that are much lower than those required by the tests to get a positive result. They’d be “free” to users.

    Dubai has been trialling something similar, and apparently UK, France, Australia and Germany are training dogs, too…

  19. Honestly, Lucky, do just a minute of research before publishing these articles.

    The test United is using here is the Abbott ID NOW test – not the new Abbott rapid tests. The ID NOW system has been around since earlier in the pandemic, and is a PCR based test. It is a rapid test – but it is a PCR test not an antigen test.

    United has not convinced or gotten Hawaii to agree to accepting a non-PCR test.

    Both you are Gary Leff made this same mistake that could have been easily verified with just a bit of simple Google research. Facts matter.

  20. Most counties require a PCR test. The Abbott and other rapid tests are not PCR tests so likely would not be accepted.

  21. @FR: Slow down there. There are 2 kinds of Abbott rapid tests:
    1) the ID-NOW system (being used for this United program): this IS a PCR test
    2) the BinaxNOW tests (not being used here): this is NOT a PCR test.

    @Bill: Oh, I know. I expect this kinda stuff from Gary Leff (he’s a hack). But usually Lucky has a somewhat better quality standard than Gary.

  22. Ben: So if you test + for COVID on one of these is United still gonna let you travel? seems like a really bad idea. will they refund your ticket?

  23. AGAIN . . . the Country with NO system!
    A mail in self test kit to mail in . . . i just take the sample from my child or whomever where i know, those people NEVER left home and never got in contact with anybody else, if i don’t want to take the risk of possible POS test results and be stuck for 14 days in Hawaii while getting results late or loosing my flight / hotel, because i could possibly be positive!
    NOBODY would be able to proof that the test results really are coming from that traveling person if nobody is doing the physical test by proof of Identity matching the person that’s being tested.
    It’s a joke as so many times in that Country.
    I can say that as i just underwent a PCR test at Munich airport arriving from Greece, all double checked on ID, and pre-registration and results came after just 14 hours with double secure system of text message code to open the emailed test results. Need to say, THAT’S a system! All paid for by Bavarian Government, but they want to be SURE that it’s not a money making thing like it sounds to me with this US “Non” system testing AND Bavaria wants to be sure that people are safe to return for work after being abroad.
    Not taking the risk of the state of HI again, bringing possible virus passengers in to gather at the beach for Halloween, Thanksgiving …… it’s a joke, so simple!

  24. These excursions into Airport Covid-19 testing are all flawed one way or another. I am testing to avoid quarantines because I’ve taken four international business flights in the past two months but my personal view is that international travel is so difficult during the pandemic that I will not take an international leisure trip until after an effective vaccine is in place and quarantines and tests are history. It’s not just the cost of testing but the risk of coming up positive and having to quarantine or worse, get medical care in a foreign country.

    The airlines are trying and I don’t blame them but it’s just a bandaid on a sucking chest wound until a vaccine is widely available.

  25. @ The Original Donna – spot on, on all points there. Nice to read some common sense here for a change.

  26. This is a step in the right direction. Makes me speculate that soon a pre flight rapid PCR test will be a part of air travel, just like running the TSA gauntlet – certainly internationally, and possibly even domestically. This should be a free requirement, or just add a minimal extra few bucks onto every ticket.

  27. @Bill
    No, nobody should laugh at Steffl who has a reason to be desperate. The world is laughing and wondering how the US could fail so miserably in responding to the pandemic. For the health industry it is a gold rush and the leadership as well as a good part of the population considers spreading the virus a political statement.

    Compared to other advanced civilized nations testing in the US is dismal – so yes, describing how things are done in other countries Steffl might have adopted a desperate tone but did so for a reason. If anything, the joke is on the US.

  28. @Peter and others
    Do you have recommendations for a PCR home testing kit and companies that you could recommend that provide such tests ? What are the expected turn-around times ?

    These may be useful for travel to other destinations besides Hawaii.

  29. Steffan we thank you and your wife for being the parents of the Internet.
    We children are in awe of your superior powers.
    Can we have our weekly allowance now?

  30. After seeing too many nasal swabs, I’m certainly never going that route.
    Seen Hawaii enough, it can wait.

    Spit test, fine, all you want.

  31. Would people travelling from UK still not be allowed to go to USA, Trying to workout optimal way of getting to Vegas for work without 2 weeks quarantine in USA, so far my options are fly to Dominican Republic requires no test and have a holiday there for 2 weeks and fly to vegas but feels like there’s a quicker way to get to vegas without quarantining. Any suggestions much appreciated

  32. I am currently at home in Hawaii in quarantine for 14 days. There has been no one checking up on me and all I have to do is answer every day the 5 questions whether I am in the same location and whether I have symptoms.

    I understand the spirit of the quarantine. If I leave the house to go for a walk in the evening with no humans around me I would not pass it to anyone, but here I am at home instead.

    The State of Hawaii says that they are partnering with CVS to administer tests, but so far CVS in Sacramento CA says you are not eligible to get tested if you have symptoms. There is no clarity on where to go to get tested. They had so many months to get this right but its still very unclear where to get the tests done. It would be nice if the state had links to places for COVID testing from the cities where there are non stop flights to Hawaii for starters.

  33. Update, Lt. Gov. Green says Hawaii will not accept your dog’s nasal swab. All testing must be monitored, either live or on zoom. Still questions about whether children need to be tested if both parents are tested

  34. It’s a start. At least somebody is trying to get something going! My only question is, why is it $250 here but free at the Frankfurt airport?

  35. Would anyone like to wager a bet that in 6 years, we will still be testing in places like Hawaii that extract additional money out of tourists by testing for the coronavirus? If they run out of viruses to test for, they will be testing and quarantining for athlete’s foot. I know several people that have gotten sick from the coronavirus, but only one died. He was 85 years old. This pandemic is not about safety, it is about money…as usual.

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please adhere to our commenting guidelines. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Reminder: OMAAT comments are changing soon. Register here to save your space.