United Airlines Trials Coronavirus-Free Flights

Filed Under: United

United Airlines is claiming to be the world’s first airline to launch free coronavirus testing on transatlantic flights, thanks to a new testing pilot. While it’s a great concept, I wonder about the execution…

United will require testing on select Newark to London flights

United Airlines will be introducing free mandatory coronavirus testing for all passengers (over the age of two) and crew on a particular Newark to London frequency:

  • This trial will take place between November 16 and December 11, 2020
  • The trial will only be for UA14 from Newark to London on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; the flight is operated by a Boeing 787-10
  • Anyone who doesn’t wish to be tested can be rebooked on another flight between Newark and London

The flight subjected to testing is operated by a 787-10

In other words, if you take this flight you’ll be guaranteed that everyone onboard over the age of two has tested negative for coronavirus.

How will the logistics of this work?

  • United is collaborating with Premise Health, which will be administering the rapid testing
  • Appointments are required for tests, and customers are being told to schedule them for at least three hours before departure
  • On-site testing will take place in the United Club at Newark near gate C93

As United Airlines Chief Customer Officer, Toby Enqvist, describes this initiative:

“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. Through this pilot program, we’ll guarantee that everyone* 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.”

United will use Abbott’s ID NOW rapid molecular test

This is the right idea, but…

Let me start by saying that I think United has the right idea here. Fast, affordable testing is what we need to make travel more widely available. You’ve gotta start somewhere, and in that sense United is onto something. We’re heard about the concept of an “air bridge” between New York and London, though personally I’m skeptical about that actually happening.

Countries of course have vastly different approaches when it comes to allowing travelers, with some requiring 14-day quarantines, others requiring testing, and others requiring just about nothing.

With that in mind, I have some thoughts and questions on United’s approach here.

What is this trial supposed to prove to governments?

United says it will share customer feedback of this pilot with governments on both sides of the Atlantic to “further demonstrate the effectiveness of these programs as an alternative to mandatory quarantines or duplicative travel restrictions.”

But I’m not actually sure what useful data this will provide. The UK still has a 14-day quarantine, whether you get tested or not. Presumably no one likes a 14-day quarantine, but what will this pre-flight testing prove?

Air Canada recently partnered in a study that makes a lot of sense and provided data useful to governments. Canada has a 14-day quarantine for international travel, and there was a voluntary trial whereby arriving international travelers got tested upon arrival, again seven days later, and again 14 days later.

This is valuable data, as they could determine the relative effective of testing vs. a quarantine:

  • How many people tested positive for coronavirus upon arrival?
  • How many people didn’t test positive upon arrival, but did test positive seven days later?
  • How many people didn’t test positive upon arrival or seven days later, but did test positive 14 days later?

But it doesn’t seem like United’s trial proves much of anything, because it doesn’t prove how many cases are being prevented after passengers get to the UK.

Germany tests all arriving passengers from “high-risk” areas

Is the trial supposed to put travelers at ease?

There have been some studies in the past few weeks suggesting that the risk of catching coronavirus on a place is extremely low. Is the real purpose of this testing to make people want to book these flights so they’ll be more at ease about not catching coronavirus on a plane?

I find this claim from United to be interesting:

“United has seen a positive impact on travel demand and significant increases in customer load factors and revenue when testing options are available.”

I mean, I feel like there’s some false causation there based on what United is inferring. I assume United is referring to Hawaii reopening to tourists, replacing a 14-day quarantine with pre-travel testing.

Of course that caused a huge boom in demand. I’m not sure that example really applies much to what United is trying to prove here. In other words, I doubt we’re going to see a huge increase in demand between Newark and London because testing options are now available.

“I was on the fence about a trip to the UK with a 14-day quarantine, but now that they’re doing pre-flight testing, maybe I’ll go…”

Airlines have indeed seen an increase in demand to Hawaii with testing

This is a big time commitment

This is probably inevitable long term if testing becomes more popular. With this trial you’ll need to schedule a test at least three hours before departure. And this is a situation where there’s only a single flight, that will typically only have several dozen people on it.

Aren’t people almost increasing their risk by unnecessarily spending hours at the airport, where air filters aren’t nearly as good as on planes? This will likely just be a reality if testing becomes more widespread, but…

Also, while this is a reality with any testing situation, there’s also always the risk of a false-positive, which could significantly delay your travels.

Airport coronavirus testing can be a big time commitment

Bottom line

United will be running a trial whereby three weekly flights between Newark and London will have all passengers and crew tested for coronavirus at no cost. In general it’s fantastic to see airlines finally take an initiative and offer this, since it seems governments aren’t interested (at least in the US and UK).

That being said, I’m still not entirely clear on what this is intended to accomplish. It won’t actually provide useful data to airlines about risks with testing vs. quarantine, and it’s also a big time commitment for travelers.

I do suppose it at least sends the message to governments that “hey, we’re ready to start doing testing for travel if you’ll ease restrictions,” even if there are questions about scalability.

What do you make of United’s testing trial? Would you go out of your way to book this flight, or avoid it?

  1. I saw a comment elsewhere that someone was bothered by the false-positive rate and how that may land a person who wasn’t sick in EWR for 3 days. I generally support this idea. Both the US and UK are a s**tshow at virus containment so I don’t think it’s going to stem the infection rates, but the last thing I need is to get sick in transit.

  2. If everyone on board has tested negative, will passengers still be required to wear masks? If not then that could be a good selling point. Otherwise the testing seems kind of pointless since there’s really no benefit to passengers from going through with it (and significant downside if they actually test positive and are prevented from traveling altogether).

  3. So you need to be tested 3 hours before departure? I guess no more connecting pax for this flight! This won’t be sustainable in the long run, especially while overall demand is down.

  4. Perhaps on to something, but that particular test has a high rate of false negatives. They need to use better tests.

  5. “I do suppose it at least sends the message to governments that “hey, we’re ready to start doing testing for travel if you’ll ease restrictions,” even if there are questions about scalability.”

    This is exactly why they’re doing it. I applaud any attempt at a creative solution to ease restrictions prior to the vaccine.

  6. Very sneaky of United tbh. They are essentially making passengers on these flights act as lab rabbits with absolutely no benefit to the passengers themselves- rather a higher chance of exposure possible due to early airport arrival and sitting around the gates 3+ hours before the flight. You still must wear masks (good), you can’t skip the “mandatory” quarantine on arrival and same level of reduced COVID era service inflight. So how is this supposed to help? Will they track all these passengers to prove that didn’t contract covid say on the way to the airport (7-14 day incubation!)…or didn’t contract it at the departure airport?

    Lastly, for most part of the pilot period, UA only has the one flight from EWR-LHR (in fact the last flight of the day from EWR-LHR) so if you decline the test you’re basically stuck in EWR till the next day and will likely have to now connect in IAD?

    What about connecting passengers with well a 45min connection, where and how will they be tested?!

  7. I hate to point this out, but it is another example of how Americans refuse to listen to the facts. How many times have you hear executes coming out saying how safe their places are by “deep cleaning”? Yes, cleaning the surfaces is ONE thing that is needed to keep customer safe, but it’s far from the most important thing. It’s as if we are all looking for a one single easy-to-apply (and understand) solution that will let us forget the virus completely. Even a vaccine is not going to bring us that! Pre-flight testing? Good to have, of course. But the person gets tested can easily be re-infected between the time he/she is tested and before boarding.

  8. So In Australia you get tested on day 4 and 14 of quarantine. There are generally still a few positives each day from hotel quarantine.
    Testing is not mandatory but strongly encouraged. If you do not do it, then you get to stay longer – at your expense. If there are religious (or other) concerns they will deal with them on a case by case basis.
    Personally if it meant I could travel again, I would do it.

    I am supposed to leave fora 4 month holiday in 2 hours. Starting in Berlin (so jealous of you Ben), included 3 weeks in Antarctica, Galapagos, the Guyanas, Calala Island and skiing in the US. I am excited though – I get to go to a friends house who lives OUTSIDE 5 kms! Feeling a little sad.

  9. Kam – I don’t think that holds. If you are infected now, you are not contagious now. Most articles say it takes about two days so for the duration of the flight < 24 hours in most cases.

    However, it also takes some days after infection to test positive. So it could be your test negative now but over the next hours, become contagious and/or test positive.

    Quite a few airlines are now trialing these tests, so we'll see the results and if such cases come up.

  10. *Most articles say it takes about two days, so for the duration of the flight, < 24 hours in most cases, you would not become contagious if infected after the test.

  11. Why on earth would ANYONE pick this time consuming and risky option when you can pick any other flight to UK without these rules.

    If you are someone who actually booked this flight please explain your thinking

  12. Despite how Cuomo fudged on his criteria for what state travelers must be quarantined coming into NY, NJ is problematic with COVID cases rising. Don’t think I want to catch any flights out of Newark, NJ despite Cuomo’s thumbs up!

  13. Frankly, this and all testing schemes for traveling are pointless, and 14-day quarantines with a test at the end are the gold standard.

    A test is simply a snapshot in time. One can get the virus and not test positive for days while still being contagious for a portion of that time. One can also get the virus when interacting with airport/airline workers, customs officials, and other passengers during the trip.

    All the governments throughout the world should agree upon a strict definition of “essential” travel and prevent people from traveling who are NOT “essential” travelers.

  14. Based upon basic statistics. Approx 500 million (1 in 14 people on the planet) have been infected! This is accounting for what they feel are the overall infection rates.

    So 1 in 14 people in the world have been infected.

    So now sit back and think on that.

    Not to mention that they say over 1 million people in the USA get tested daily (LOL) Until this year, 2.5 million people cleared TSA daily in the US, so think on that.

    This is about control!

  15. 14-day quarantine is a length of time chosen almost arbitrarily. In China it’s 7 days. In Switzerland it’s 10 days. Germany is moving later in November towards a system of 10 days, but you can “test out” after 5 days. 14 days is not the “gold standard”, it is unnecessary because such a long incubation is incredibly rare. Most likely if somebody is suddenly positive after 14 days, they got infected at the place they were quarantining.
    Rapid tests are so inaccurate to be almost useless, if you get a “positive” you have an overwhelming likelihood of actually being negative. So it is not a good tool for pre-flight testing.
    Elsewhere (at Frankfurt airport for example) you can get tested within 6 hours with a reasonably accurate PCR test. It’s not cheap but not that much money either (about $150 for the 6-hour express test).
    If you test positive or negative with a PCR test, it very likely reflects reality — it would be sufficient, and can eliminate the need for quarantine. After all, if one case slips through every couple of weeks or months, it’s not the end of the world, and can be contact traced. With a PCR test you would catch 99% of infected people before they board the plane. (Right now the situation is out of control because it is a torrent, a cascade of cases going all over the place, all the time. Contact tracing is no longer possible with such infection rates. And the US hasn’t done any steps to set up a contact tracing system anyway)
    The US is still not able to handle enough testing, after 7 months, when much of the world has figured it out already. I think that’s the main theme. It seems as though absolutely nothing has happened in over 7 months, we haven’t even started to implement any solutions that would get us out of this crisis. The message is always “carry on. it’ll go away on its own. It’s not that bad”
    It has shown the complete incompetence of the federal government, and what we are seeing is a cautionary tale for what happens when you gut agencies like the CDC and staff them with ignorant sycophants, or appoint somebody to head the Post office or the EPA who wants to abolish them. All these agencies used to work, and can work — and if they did, voting by mail would work smoothly, the pandemic would have been contained in March and tens of millions of people wouldn’t be out of work.

  16. Hard avoid. I have to connect at EWR and the connection times won’t allow for it. And if my earlier flight is delayed and I miss my appointment I would be stuck for another day. Also if somebody is positive, whether false or an accurate result, then what? I am assuming I will be stuck at EWR. And lastly with only one lounge open in terminal C why would I want to be there any longer than necessary. Sort of a good idea but logistically it just doesn’t work.

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