United will give free airport COVID-19 tests on select flights to London: 'We have to show that it works'

Dawn Gilbertson, USA TODAY
·3 min read

United Airlines passengers flying from New Jersey to London will undergo a mandatory COVID-19 test at the airport beginning next month in an experiment the airline hopes jump-starts international travel.

The good news for passengers: the test, required of all passengers over age 2 on select flights from Newark, is free.Other airport and airline COVID-19 test options are as pricey as $250 per person for on-site tests.

The bad news: passengers with negative test results won't be able to bypass a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival in London, as they can on flights to Hawaii as of Oct. 15. (Passengers testing positive will not be allowed to board and will receive a refund.)

United executives said the goal of the pilot program, which will be offered three days a week on Flight 14 between Nov. 16 and Dec. 11, is two-pronged.

In the short term, the airline hopes it gives travelers peace of mind to book a trip because it guarantees that "essentially everyone on board has tested negative for COVID-19,'' according to Aaron McMillan, United's managing director of operations policy and support .

The airline says it saw the number of passenger on Hawaii flights double in the first two weeks testing was an option, though it notes that those travelers are able to bypass the quarantine with a negative test result.

Despite the negative tests, United said passengers will still have to wear masks and follow other coronavirus safety protocols on the flights to London.

The airline also hopes that the program will show airlines can effectively operate rapid testing before a flight, a key factor in their bid to convince government officials in other countries and the United States that it's safe to reopen international travel by reducing or eliminating quarantines.

"We have to show that it works,'' said Josh Earnest, United's Chief Communication Officer. "If we can show that it works, that will only strengthen our case with government officials.''

The tests will be conducted at a United Club lounge at Newark Liberty International Airport. Travelers on the designated flights must schedule an appointment and take the test at least three hours before the 7:15 p.m. flight.

Passengers will be given an Abbott ID Now COVID-19 test, a rapid molecular test that will be administered by Premise Health. Results take about 15 to 20 minutes, United said.

Lab-based PCR tests, which take longer to process, are generally the most accurate COVID-19 tests available, but United said the Abbott ID tests are more sensitive to virus detection than other rapid tests, including antigen tests.

"We fully expect that this test will meet the standard,'' McMillan said.

If the pilot program is extended or expanded to other international destinations, United is noncommittal as to whether the tests will be free or carry a price like its Hawaii tests. The London flights it will be tested on can accommodate more than 300 people but have only been carrying 50 to 100 passengers due to the quarantine and other travel restrictions.

Earnest said the prices of COVID-19 tests for travel in general should come down as competition increases.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: United Airlines to pilot free airport COVID-19 tests on London flights