A transatlantic passenger flight that, even in the age of Covid-19, feels safe – United Airlines flight 14 from Newark which landed at Heathrow Airport early on Tuesday seemed to be exactly that.The flight is the first in a four-week trial by the airline in which passengers and crew are tested before boarding, offering them the reassurance that – at least at time of take off – no one has the virus. United wants to demonstrate that proper onboard testing could allow transatlantic travel to open back up again, reducing or eliminating the need for quarantine and reigniting the travel industry. So how does it work? I was one of 36 passengers aboard the inaugural overnight flight to Heathrow to experience the process. Here’s what happened: The screening for the virus – a rapid Abbott ID Now Covid-19 test administered by Premise Health – took place immediately after check in.You go through security, head toward the gate and the testing facility, which is located at the Newark United Club. You go in, give your name, answer basic medical questions and a nurse does a nasal swab.It’s not at all intrusive. The doctor in charge explained to me that the swab doesn’t need to go beyond the nasal passages to detect Covid. The whole thing takes about 15 minutes in total, then you get the results printed and handed to you.
While it was a quick and easy process on Monday evening, it did occur to me that if pre-flight testing becomes the norm, and there are three, four or five full flights to Europe departing a day, the center could become very busy.But United was prepared, asking us to arrive a couple of hours early to allow time for testing. You sign up for your 15-minute window in advance, so it’s easy to incorporate into travel time.The only soul that wasn’t tested? A support dog, who was accompanying one passenger and was extremely well-behaved. United will be carrying out the test on three flights across the Atlantic per week. It hopes that it’ll help restore air links between London and New York, which is normally one of the world’s busiest international long-haul routes. Right now, passengers traveling it are few and far between. Anyone arriving in the UK from America must quarantine for two weeks. Restrictions are even tougher for the return journey, making transatlantic travel, whether for business or leisure, next to impossible right now. Travelers arriving in the UK from the US and vice versa are not currently required to show a negative Covid test. Many in the travel industry say this is a missed opportunity to create a safe corridor. On board the United Boeing 767-300ER making the debut Covid-testing flight, most passengers tell me they’re traveling to see family. One person did test positive for Covid-19 during the screening. The individual was denied boarding, and escorted to an isolation room. I don’t think United expected this, but the airline was prepared and protocol was followed. Proper procedures were put in place for the individual’s care and wellbeing and to protect other passengers. The airline reckons this demonstrates that pre-departure testing results in safe flying.
It is certainly reassuring being on a plane where everyone has been tested. Of course, we know it’s not a guarantee, but at the time of boarding everyone was Covid-free. If a passenger were to transition to Covid-positive during the flight, there are still face masks, distancing and the aircraft’s HEPA filters to limit the chances of it spreading. The flaws of pre-departure testing were underscored last week when the SeaDream 1, the first cruise ship to return to service in the Caribbean, saw Covid cases, despite all passengers being screened.Scott Kirby, CEO at United Airlines says that the chances of a person testing negative for Covid at Newark, flying across the Atlantic and then testing positive at Heathrow – and passing on the virus in the process – is slim. “Because of the environment on a cruise ship – it spreads entirely across the cruise ship – it’s not like that if you fly internationally on an airplane,” says Kirby.
United also continues to implement the safety procedures it’s introduced since the pandemic – compulsory masks, social distancing. I was in business class, and when we were served food, it was all packaged up and designed so that no one had touched it. Arriving at Heathrow, I am shocked by how eerily quiet it is. It’s a vivid reminder of how the second wave of Covid-19 in Europe and the subsequent lockdowns have had a devastating effect on the travel industry. If the experiment proves successful, United’s method must be the future of travel. A pre-departure negative Covid test supplemented by a short quarantine and a final test to give the all-clear would make a huge difference. A vaccine is coming, but it’s not going to be widely available until middle to late 2021. Until then, some form of testing regime will need to be in place for those countries that don’t have corridors. This does seem to be the only way forward. It’s about giving passengers – and governments – greater confidence to return to travel.