American, BA and oneworld trial trans-Atlantic COVID tests

by AirlineRatings editors
November 18, 2020
Photo: American Airlines

American Airlines, British Airways and oneworld plan to offer voluntary COVID-19 testing on flights between the US and London Heathrow (LHR) as they push to get international quarantine measures dropped.

The industry’s arguments that compulsory 14-day coronavirus quarantine should be axed in favour of testing to help re-open international travel have yet to gain significant traction with many governments and airlines have been intensifying their lobbying.

READ: Asia-Pacific airline bosses back global COVID testing regime.

Oneworld chief executive Rob Gurney said the airline alliance believed COVID-19 testing would play an important role in safely restarting international travel.

“A comprehensive testing program will provide governments the confidence to reduce or waive quarantine requirements and safely reopen their economies to international visitors, while further assuring customers that their health and well-being are protected,” he said.

The free tests will initially be offered to eligible customers booked on American Airlines Flight AA50 departing Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) to LHR; British Airways Flight BA114 departing New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to LHR; and British Airways Flight BA268 from Los Angeles (LAX) to LHR

Those tests begin November 25 and will be expanded at an unspecified later date to American Airlines Flight AA106 from JFK to LHR.

Eligible customers booked on flights will take three tests — two of them self-administered— in conjunction with the journey. Any customer who tests positive will be told to reschedule or cancel their travel.

The first test, to be taken 72 hours before departure from the US., is described as “a convenient at-home RT-PCR test provided by LetsGetChecked”. Customers will self-collect a nasal sample, under the supervision of medical professionals via a virtual visit.

After landing at LHR, participating customers will proceed to their second test at the airport. The newer Loop-medicated isothermal amplification (LAMP)  test, provided by Collinson, involves the collection of a nasal sample by a medical professional and returns results in less time than an RT-PCR test.

After the test is completed, a test kit for the third test will be provided to the customer. The third test kit offers an at-home testing option through the self-collection of a saliva sample which is taken three days after arrival in the United Kingdom.

The three-test approach aims to validate a customer’s negative status for COVID-19 throughout the travel journey and will provide insight into the most effective and practical testing interval. The third test is intended to further confirm the results of the first two tests, to demonstrate that one or two tests will be sufficient to allow travel to safely restart.

A task force comprising oneworld member airline representatives and independent medical experts are overseeing the implementation of the trial and results will be shared with the US and UK governments.

Prior to the pandemic, American and BA flew to more than 30 destinations in the US  and operated 111 flights a week from London to New York alone. Today they fly to a fraction of the destinations and operate a combined 14 flights a week between the two cities.

American chief executive Doug Parker noted the airline had already introduced pre-flight COVID testing for customers traveling from the US to destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“We have received tremendous feedback from our customers in response to testing, as it provides peace of mind for safe and enjoyable travel,’’ Parker said.

“The UK is a critically important business and leisure destination that our customers want to visit. We believe the results provided by this trial will be vital for reopening transatlantic travel safely.”

British Airways CEO Sean Doyle said:  “We know people want to travel but our skies remain all but closed and the UK is being left behind. Major economies like Germany are adopting testing to replace quarantine.

“We need the UK Government to introduce a system that allows travelers to take reliable, affordable tests before departure, so they are confident that fellow passengers are COVID-free.

“For people arriving from countries with high infection rates, a further test on arrival should then release them from quarantine.

“We are confident this approach would open routes, stimulate economies and get people traveling with confidence. The UK’s economic recovery depends on the swift reopening of its skies.”