Virgin Atlantic commits to testing crew for COVID-19 at least once a month

Oct 5, 2020

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Virgin Atlantic is rolling out a new trial programme for cabin crew and pilots. On Monday, the airline announced that it’s set to become the first U.K. airline to introduce a rapid pre-flight COVID-19 test at Heathrow for crew.

The airline has partnered with GeneMe U.K., an official distributor of the FRANKD test, which uses a nasal or throat swab to identify if a person has the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA. The firm developed the FRANKD test to be used specifically for the travel industry, as it can produce test results faster — in 30 minutes or less — than a traditional PCR test, while still shown to be 100% specific and 97% sensitive to detecting SARS-CoV-2.

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Crew chosen to be tested will be asked to submit a swab on-site at Virgin’s Heathrow base. After the swab is taken, results are processed on-site and delivered via the Yoti app within 30 minutes. Crew who test negative would then be permitted to operate their flight.

The new pre-flight testing functionality rolled out as of 30 September for crew operating flights to Shanghai and Hong Kong. Later in October, Virgin said that it expects to expand the trial on flights to Barbados. Beyond that, Virgin expects to roll out the testing service to operating crew at least once per month.

“The introduction of on-site pre-flight COVID-19 testing for our crew and pilots ensures we remain at the forefront of the aviation industry’s safe return to the skies”, Virgin Chief Customer and Operating Officer Corneel Koster said in a statement. “This trial is a first step in our phased plan to introduce regular testing for all of our teams in the air and on the ground, in order to instil confidence in flying”.

However, while the airline is launching this testing functionality for its crew, the carrier is still urging the U.S. and U.K. governments to adopt a similar testing approach in order to open up international borders. Currently, the U.S. is still closed to non-nationals who have been in the Schengen Area in the past 14 days. Meanwhile, the U.K. still requires that travellers coming from the U.S. quarantine for 14 days on arrival.

For an airline like Virgin Atlantic, of which 70% of its route network is the transatlantic market, the holdup in restrictions has hindered its ability to resume operations on a larger scale.

Virgin CEO Shai Weiss, as well as Heathrow Airport CEO John Holland-Kaye, have pressured the government to adopt a testing alternative to quarantine. If approved, the testing option would allow passengers from non-travel corridor countries to enter the U.K. without having to quarantine for 14 days on arrival, so long as they can produce a negative coronavirus test result.

“We need urgent action from UK and US governments to introduce pre-departure testing, to remove the need for quarantine and to minimise travel restrictions, while protecting public health and half a million UK jobs associated with the sector”, Koster said. “ As long as the UK’s 14 day quarantine is in place, demand for travel will not return and the UK’s economic recovery, which relies on free flowing trade and tourism, cannot take off”.

Featured photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

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