AA & BA To Launch Free Covid-19 Trials On Select Transatlantic Routes

airplanes parked at an airport

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American Airlines has recently started offering Covid-19 tests (that customers have to pay for) on a number of its routes from the United States to the Caribbean and Central America. Now the airline is joining forces with British Airways to trial an enhanced free Covid-19 testing program for passengers traveling on select flights between the United States and Europe.

While all the Covid-19 test offerings that we have seen airlines introduce so far involve a single test ahead of departure, this latest trial from American Airlines and British Airways goes a lot further – passengers will be offered a total of 3 Covid-19 tests as the airlines aim to prove that with sufficient and rigorous testing, travel between the US and the UK can be resumed without the need for the current restrictions.

The trial is scheduled to start from 25 November 2020 with eligible passengers on the following flights being offered the free Covid tests:

  • AA50 from Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) to London Heathrow (LHR)
  • BA114 from New York (JFK) to London Heathrow (LHR)
  • BA268 from Los Angeles (LAX) to London Heathrow (LHR)

The trial will be expanded to flight AA106 from JFK to Heathrow a date that has yet to be communicated.

Per the airlines, this is how the resting will be set up to work:

Eligible customers booked on flights that are part of the trial will be contacted by American Airlines and British Airways with instructions on how to volunteer. Each customer participating in the trial will take three tests in conjunction with the journey. If a customer tests positive, they should reschedule or cancel their travel.

The first test, to be taken 72 hours before departure from the U.S., is a convenient 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.

After landing at LHR, participating customers will proceed to their second test at the airport. The LAMP test, provided by Collinson, involves the collection of a nasal sample by a medical professional. After the test is completed, a test kit for the third test will be provided to the customer. The third 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.

The results of the trial will be shared with the US and UK governments as the airlines hope to see the US lift its restrictions on travelers arriving from the UK and to see the UK relax its current 14-day quarantine restrictions on travelers arriving from the United States.

This trial builds on the measures being taken by United Airlines which, for a four-week period, sees the airline offering free rapid Covid tests to passengers on select flights traveling between Newark and London Heathrow. In United’s case, it aims to offer flights on which everyone onboard has tested negative for Covid-19 just once, while the trial being launched by AA/BA aims to show that airlines are capable of testing passengers throughout their journey and in the days after their journey ends.

The former may give people more confidence to travel but we are almost certainly going to need a system that’s a lot closer to what AA and BA propose if we are to see governments changing their current stances on travel. The big question that remains is the one surrounding the robustness of the tests being offered.

The UK government is on record as being reluctant to accept airport testing (or even testing that takes place a few short days after arrival) as a viable replacement for a 14-day quarantine period, so it will be interesting to see how it responds to the findings from the American Airlines/British Airways trial.

The airlines say that the ultimate objective of their resting is “to validate that a pre-departure test provides a high level of certainty of a passenger being COVID-19 negative” but without knowing what level of uncertainty governments are willing to accept, it’s hard to tell just how persuasive this trial may be. As things stand, and based on the noises being made by the UK government, I suspect that the airlines still have a challenging road ahead of them.