Oneworld carriers American, British Airways to trial testing regime for US-UK flights

Nov 17, 2020

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Flyers on select American Airlines and British Airways flights to London will soon have the option to participate in a COVID-19 testing trial that aims to do away with quarantines when they land on either side of the Atlantic.

Beginning 25 November, travellers on three flights operated by the two Oneworld carriers departing the U.S. for London Heathrow (LHR) can join the three-test trial organized by the alliance. Eligible flights include American-operated AA50 from Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) and British Airways-operated BA268 from Los Angeles (LAX) and BA114 from New York JFK.

The trial will expand to American flight AA106 from New York to London at a later date.

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“We think that what the study will demonstrate is that a single PCR test 72-hours prior to departure provides a significant level of risk mitigation for governments to consider removal of quarantine,” Oneworld CEO Rob Gurney told TPG in an interview.

Trade group the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has called mandatory quarantines tantamount to a “full travel ban” when it comes to international travel. International flyer volumes were down nearly 89% year-over-year in September with the organisation not expecting a full recovery until at least 2024.

This prognosis has prompted airlines and governments to look to coronavirus testing regimes as a way to begin reopening international travel. Hong Kong and Singapore plan to introduce a quarantine-free “travel bubble” between them built around negative COVID-19 tests on 22 November. And U.S. airlines have jumped to offer flyers pre-flight testing options in order to restart travel to places like Hawaii.

However, testing that reopens international travel — especially on busy and lucrative routes between the U.S. and U.K. — remains the goal of most U.S. carriers. For example, United Airlines is trialling free pre-flight testing for its London flight departing Newark (EWR).

Related: United Airlines tests potential travel bubble solution on London-Newark flight

All adult flyers on the participating American and British Airways flights will be invited to join the trial before departure. If they opt to participate, they will undergo three COVID-19 tests: one at home 72-hours before they fly, one at Heathrow after they land and a final test three-days after they arrive in London.

The tests will be free to participants. Oneworld aims to wrap up the trial in early December, once around 500 travellers have participated.

Gurney cautions that participants will not be able to avoid the U.K.’s mandatory 14-day quarantine once they arrive in London. However, non-personal data from the trial will be shared with both the U.S. and U.K. governments in an effort to “produce a body of evidence” where testing can scientifically replace quarantines. Neither government is directly involved in the trial.

Asked how the trial by American and British Airways compares to the others already underway, Gurney reiterated that the alliance’s program aims to establish scientific proof that testing can eliminate the risk of spreading COVID.

Other trials underway, for example with The Commons Projects’ CommonPass app, are focused more on transmitting testing data to airlines and governments as part of reopening international travel, said Gurney.

Oneworld is overseeing the trial as part of a larger aim to use the results to help restart travel across markets for its member airlines. While the U.S.-U.K. is the first market involved, the alliance hopes to use the data to help set up testing regimes in other international markets.

“We certainly want to see the removal of quarantine[s], and we certainly want to see [them] removed safely,” said Gurney.

Related: Alaska Airlines sets new date for full Oneworld membership

Featured image by Nicolas Economou/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

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