British Airways and American Airlines have launched a transatlantic Covid-19 testing trial on selected flights between the United States and London Heathrow.
The trial, which is also being operated through the Oneworld airline alliance, sees optional Covid-19 tests being offered to passengers on selected flights and is intended to “scientifically demonstrate how COVID-19 testing can reopen international travel and remove the need for passengers to quarantine on arrival.”
The trial differs from the one launched by United Airlines – United’s first Covid-19-free flight lands at London Heathrow – in that the United trial has a single pre-departure test taken before boarding the flight while the AA and BA version has three tests in conjunction with the journey. This is to help prove the efficacy of a single pre-departure test taken 72 hours before departure.
We believe that testing passengers for COVID-19, instead of imposing quarantine, is the safest and most efficient way to get the world flying again.
— British Airways (@British_Airways) November 17, 2020
The AA and BA trial sees eligible customers being asked if they would like to volunteer. The aim is to get a sample size of some 500 passengers who will take the three tests.
The first test, to be taken 72 hours before departure from the US, is an at-home RT-PCR test provided by LetsGetChecked. Customers will self-collect a nasal sample, under the supervision of medical professionals via a virtual visit.
The second test is after landing at LHR and is a LAMP test, provided by Collinson. This involves the collection of a nasal sample by a medical professional.
After that test is completed, a test kit for the third test will be provided to the customer. The test kit offers an at-home testing option, through the self-collection of a saliva sample which is taken three days after arrival in to the United Kingdom (UK).
The three-test approach aims to validate a customer’s negative status for COVID-19 throughout the travel journey and will provide insight into the most effective and practical testing interval. The third test is intended to further confirm the results of the first two tests, to demonstrate that one or two tests will be sufficient to allow travel to safely restart.
The free tests will initially be offered to eligible customers booked on
- American Airlines flight AA50 departing Dallas/ Fort Worth (DFW) to LHR;
- British Airways flight BA114 departing New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) to LHR;
- British Airways flight BA268 from Los Angeles (LAX) to LHR.
All of these will begin on November 25, 2020.
The test will be expanded to American Airlines flight AA106 from JFK to LHR, with a launch date to be communicated.
A task force comprising Oneworld member airline representatives and independent medical experts are overseeing the implementation of the trial. The task force will share the aggregated results with the US and UK Governments and other stakeholders to demonstrate the essential role that Covid-19 testing programmes can play in safely restarting travel.
The initiative comes as airlines are increasingly frustrated with the reluctance of governments to coordinate the testing response in a way that would allow the gathering of data as to whether pre-departure testing is a way of restarting travel.
The airlines point out that trade between the UK and US totals more than £200 billion (US$ 262 billion) a year, which airlines are critical to facilitating. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, together American Airlines and British Airways flew to more than 30 destinations in the US from London and the carriers operated up to 111 flights a week from London to New York; now they operate 14 flights per week combined, between the two cities.
Based on current UK Government policies, international travellers arriving in the UK from the US are required to self-isolate for 14 days even if they have tested negative for Covid-19. The tests being used as part of the trial will not impact UK National Health Service testing capacity.
British Airways and American Airlines have worked with Heathrow on implementation of the trial in to Terminal 5, and as a result Heathrow is now exploring whether trials can be introduced on more routes between the airport and the US.
Data from industry body IATA suggests the risk of contracting COVID-19 on aircraft is extremely low.
The idea that a single pre-departure test, taken 72 hours before travel might be enough for authorities is one that most governments at the moment do not accept, but Sean Doyle, CEO of British Airways said that the purpose of the trial was to establish just how effective it is.
When asked if it was likely that someone would be infected on board, Doyle cited the IATA research above, and said:
“What we are trying to evidence here is not that the act of travel is safe, because we know that the act of travel is safe, based on the evidence that we have across the many millions of people who have flown over the last six months. What we are trying to evidence is the effectiveness of testing to replace quarantine as a more effective control.”
Doyle pointed out that the current alternative was self-quarantine.
“With quarantine you need to have research to find out how compliant passengers are with it. Are people complying with a 14-day quarantine? Because it is a behavioural control so you are relying on people to respect the quarantine protocol when they enter a country. And we have seen low levels of compliance across other social distancing and self-isolation data.”
“If you think about a testing solution, you can guarantee 100 per cent compliance for testing. You can guarantee that everybody who is getting on a flight in the U.S and arriving into the UK in the morning is going through this process and is fully compliant with the policy. So it’s very effective and doesn’t rely on human behaviour to the same extent that the current policies do. So I would argue that the data supporting pre-departure testing as a form of mitigation is very compelling and the fact that you have 100 per cent compliance is something that should be reassuring health bodies and regulators rather than making them nervous.”
“We know people want to travel but our skies remain all but closed and the UK is being left behind. Major economies like Germany are adopting testing to replace quarantine.”
“We need the UK Government to introduce a system that allows travellers to take reliable, affordable tests before departure, so they are confident that fellow passengers are Covid-free. For people arriving from countries with high infection rates, a further test on arrival should then release them from quarantine.
Chairman and Chief Executive of American Airlines, Doug Parker, said: “American has already successfully introduced a pre-flight Covid-19 testing programme for customers travelling from the US to international destinations across the Caribbean and Latin America. We have received tremendous feedback from our customers in response to testing, as it provides peace of mind for safe and enjoyable travel.
“The UK is a critically important business and leisure destination that our customers want to visit. We believe the results provided by this trial will be vital for reopening transatlantic travel safely.”
Chief Executive of Oneworld Rob Gurney said: “We believe that Covid-19 testing will play an important role in safely restarting international travel. A comprehensive testing programme will provide governments the confidence to reduce or waive quarantine requirements and safely reopen their economies to international visitors, while further assuring customers that their health and well-being are protected.”