First United flight with free COVID testing for passengers lands at Heathrow

Nov 17, 2020

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

United’s first flight between Newark and London Heathrow with free rapid testing for passengers and crew has landed. United Airlines Flight 14, operated by one of the carrier’s Boeing 787-10 Dreamliners, departed from Newark Airport (EWR) at 7:28 p.m. local time on 16 November (12:28 a.m. GMT on 17 November) and arrived at Heathrow (LHR) at 6:40 a.m. GMT.

United said that all passengers aged two or older and crew were required to take a rapid test prior to boarding. The tests were free of charge, and anyone who wasn’t willing to take a test was placed on another flight, guaranteeing that everyone on board UA14 had been tested prior to departure.

(Photo courtesy of United Airlines)

“These flights are a good proof-of-concept for governments around the world that are considering making testing part of the travel experience,” United Chief Customer Officer Toby Enqvist said in a statement. “Expanding our testing efforts with pilot programmes like this one not only helps guarantee passengers onboard test negative for COVID-19, it also adds another element to our layered approach to safety and demonstrates a way to work within quarantines to key international destinations.”

During the remainder of the trial period, the Chicago-based carrier will offer free rapid testing to all passengers and crew onboard select flights from Newark (EWR) to London Heathrow (LHR). The testing will take place at an onsite testing facility, located at the Newark United Club near gate C93.

(Photo courtesy of United Airlines)

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During the trial, the carrier will offer the free testing pilot on Monday, Wednesday and Friday departures of United Flight 14, with the following schedule:

  • United Flight 14, EWR to LHR 7:15 p.m. to 6:55 a.m. (next day)

The airline will continue the testing through 11 December.

The test, administered by Premise Health, uses Abbott’s ID Now rapid molecular test system, which gives results in 15 to 20 minutes. For now, United is planning for about 50 to 100 tests per departure, in line with the average loads on recent flights to London.

Appointments are required, and United recommends a three-hour buffer between the test and departure time — something to consider if you’re booking a connecting itinerary. You’ll need to wait in the lounge until you receive a negative result before being allowed to freely roam around the airport.

United’s testing centre at SFO (Photo courtesy of United)

Just because customers are flying on a COVID-free flight doesn’t mean you can remove your mask. Everyone still needs to abide by the mask requirement or risk getting booted from the airline. United’s other CleanPlus safety initiatives, like enhanced cleaning and sanitisation, still apply to its London flights.

United hopes that this trial is as successful as its recent launch of pre-travel testing in San Francisco for Hawaii-bound passengers. On 15 October, Hawaii began welcoming visitors and returning residents to the islands without a 14-day quarantine, if the traveller packed a negative COVID test within 72 hours of departure.

In partnership with GoHealth Urgent Care, United set up an optional testing facility in San Francisco’s international terminal. In the first 10 days since Hawaii’s reopening, the carrier’s San Francisco to Hawaii flights have seen a nearly 95% increase in passengers compared to the prior two-week period.

Aaron McMillan, managing director of operations policy and support, cautioned that “testing does not currently exempt travellers from quarantine by the Brits [like it does in Hawaii].” He continued, “we’re hopeful that we can prove this testing pilot is safe. Then, the [British] government can take a look at the data and make a decision [about the quarantine] rooted in safety.”

Related: Everything you need to know about the Global Travel Taskforce and what it means for your holiday

On Tuesday afternoon, American Airlines and British Airways announced a similar partnership in a testing regime for flights between select U.S. departure points and Heathrow.

In recent weeks, there have been talks about an air corridor starting between New York and London. The concept is that passengers would submit a negative test result before departure to avoid the mandatory quarantine on either side of the pond.

Asked what it would take to consider this pilot a success, especially if the quarantine requirements aren’t lifted, Earnest responded, “if we are able to stimulate additional demand to fly on a COVID-free flight or win customers from our competitors or if the publicity around this initiative convinces others countries to work with us on similar programs, then the London pilot would be considered a success.”

Henry Harteveldt, president at Atmosphere Research Group, thinks that pretravel testing is key to getting passengers back in the sky. Asked earlier this month about the recent proliferation of airline testing programmes, Harteveldt said “it all boils down to one word: confidence.”

“If people are confident they can get tested, then they will be more confident to travel,” he concluded.

Emily McNutt contributed to this story.

Featured photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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