As the largest carrier between the mainland and Hawaii United Airlines has a lot to gain by increasing passenger numbers to the islands. Quarantine restrictions limited the viability for most visitors over the summer but a new policy allowing passengers with a negative COVID test to skip the quarantine could help boost traffic. United will soon offer testing at San Francisco International Airport to help meet that requirement.
Our new COVID testing program is another way we are helping customers meet their destinations’ entry requirements, safely and conveniently. We’ll look to quickly expand customer testing to other destinations and U.S. airports later this year to complement our state-of-the-art cleaning and safety measures. – Toby Enqvist, Chief Customer Officer at United
Launching on 15 October, the rapid Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 test – administered by GoHealth Urgent Care and their partner Dignity Health – provides results in approximately 15 minutes and will be available to United customers on the same day as their flight departing from SFO. Another option for a mail-in test will also be available to passengers. Bloomberg is reporting that the test will cost passengers $250 at the airport.
Looking beyond Hawaii
United executives have not been shy in their estimations that travel will not show signs of significant recovery until a vaccine is available to passengers. That not withstanding, the company also hopes that a broader testing regimen can open up some borders and help restore service in limited international markets.
In a briefing of United for Business travel managers today the company suggested that the testing at SFO “is a beta that hopefully can be expanded across many international markets.” They New York – London market is among the top considerations for such an approach, though it also comes with challenges on several fronts.
So many problems to solve
Perhaps most significant is the cost. While $250 might make sense for some business trips or for an emergency visit to family it is unlikely to be appealing for most leisure travelers. Earlier this week IATA CEO Alexandre de Juniac introduced the idea of 100% testing prior to international flights to help remove quarantine barriers. During that briefing he suggested that the test cost would be closer to $10. Whether the $250 rate reflects limited supply, logistical overhead or just profits, it is nowhere close to a reasonable price point for bringing back serious passenger volumes.
IATA is calling for systematic testing of all international passengers before travel. This should allow governments to open borders without quarantine.– IATA CEO Alexandre de Juniac
IATA also believes that governments should pay for the testing as it is part of a public health and safety initiative. Whether that simply gets passed on to the passenger in a fare surcharge or bundled some other way is yet to be seen, but it is unlikely that most governments will passively assume the liability.
A false confidence?
Also under scrutiny is whether the tests are sufficiently accurate. While de Juniac touted a 97% rate there are concerns among some groups that early infections might not be carrying enough antibodies to be detected, leaving a window where a carrier could still get on a plane with a negative test. Enough reported incidents of similar false negatives in recent weeks have led to serious problems as passengers test positive on arrival.
And what would happen to a passenger testing positive prior to the flight home? A quarantine at the destination is much more challenging than at home prior to a trip.
With these risks at hand health officials have shied away from endorsing testing-based travel corridors. A United executive echoed that issue, “What’s missing is still buy-in from health agencies on both sides of the Atlantic.” Key is to shift the risk profile from regions or countries to individual travelers. But until the testing can be sufficiently accurate that remains unlikely to change.
If nothing else, however, the COVID-specific tests are a much better option than temperature scanning.
Not enough to go around
Finally, there are testing volume issues. Aviation would need a million per day just to cover the current global international traffic volume. And that number would rise to 4-5 million per day as traffic recovers. Adding in domestic service like between the US mainland and Hawaii would further increase the demand for tests. And the vendors simply cannot produce enough to meet those levels. At least not right now.
When deciding which groups or industries to prioritize de Juniac suggests that air travel should be “among the priorities” but stopped short of insisting it be the top. Still, getting to the point where enough tests exist to handle all the other, higher priorities like schools and hospitals, before getting to travel could still be some time off.
And in the meantime borders will remain closed. Which is good for public health and bad for business.
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