Trailblazing airlines in the US are exposing how far behind the UK is on testing

Greg Dickinson
·4-min read
As US airlines test passengers, the UK lags behind - Getty
As US airlines test passengers, the UK lags behind - Getty
LOGO: Test4Travel
LOGO: Test4Travel

This week, American Airlines joined JetBlue, United and Hawaiian Airlines in revealing plans to test passengers before boarding so they can avoid quarantine restrictions on arrival in certain destinations.

The testing is considered to be a convenience, not a necessity. And it doesn’t come for free. Prices range from $80 (£62) to $250 (£195), depending on the airline.

But they exist, which is more than can be said in the UK. And they are widely seen as a way of unlocking travel, allowing holidaymakers to sidestep or reduce a 14-day quarantine on arrival.

“Our plan for this initial phase of preflight testing reflects the ingenuity and care our team is putting into rebuilding confidence in air travel," American Airlines President Robert Isom said in a statement.

American Airlines is now collaborating with several foreign governments to offer pre-flight Covid-19 testing for customers. The first are Jamaica and the Bahamas.

The initial phase of testing with Jamaica will cover Jamaican residents flying back to their home country. If the passengers tests negative, their 14-day quarantine will be waived.

American is also engaging with CARICOM, a group of 20 Caribbean countries, about expanding into more markets.

United has made a similar agreement with Hawaii, due to roll out on flights departing San Francisco from October 15. The airline will offer Hawaii-bound passengers the option to take a Covid-19 test before they depart, in order to avoid quarantine on arrival.

The rapid version, taken on the day of departure with results available in 15 minutes or less, costs $250 (£195), while the home-testing option, taken 72 hours before flying, costs $80 (£62).

This is in contrast to the UK. Airlines are not offering tests on departure, nor do any airports currently have the facilities to offer this, and passengers are instead required to seek out expensive PCR tests from independent clinics – but even these cannot guarantee results in time for departure.

As the UK faces a second spike of Covid-19, demand has now outstripped capacity, and one laboratory told Telegraph Travel it is now no longer prioritising leisure travel tests.

“Covid-19 PCR testing has significantly increased in recent weeks in line with increasing infection rates and hospital admissions, and as a result testing is now outstripping laboratory capacity,” a spokesperson from the Doctor’s Laboratory, the largest independent provider of clinical laboratory diagnostic services in the UK, told Telegraph Travel. 

“Priority is therefore being given to clinical and work-related testing.”

As a result, the Telegraph has learnt that many holidaymakers have missed flights due to delayed results.

While pre-flight testing clinics in the UK continue to face difficulties, there were green shoots for the travel industry today when the CEO of Heathrow Airport revealed that it hopes to unveil a testing facility at the airport within weeks.

John Holland-Kaye, CEO of Heathrow, told Travel Weekly: “We’ve heard from the Prime Minister that he hopes to go to a trial in the second half of October. It would take a couple of weeks to put into practice.”

Holland-Kaye also said testing on routes between London and New York by Thanksgiving (November 26) “seems entirely feasible”, adding the demand would be “enormous”. The tests, expected to be rolled out for both departures and arrivals, would cost £150.

“If we get good results, there is no reason we shouldn’t be able to extend it,” he told the publication. “It’s possible that in the first or second quarter of next year, we see ‘rapid point of care’ tests become more normal.”

A senior airline source stressed that a programme testing arrivals would have to be integrated with the Government’s test-and-trace system, rather than involve private testing, stating: “There are things developing behind the scenes. If we have a decision in October, there is no reason a trial couldn’t be in place for November.”

Holland-Kaye told The Telegraph: “Testing is the lifeline that the UK’s aviation sector needs to get back on its feet. We’ve put some of the most cutting-edge rapid testing technologies into action at Heathrow to see which offers the best solution.

“If we can find a test that is accurate, gets a result within a matter of minutes, is cost-effective and gets the Government green light, we could have the potential to introduce wide-scale testing at the airport.

Exclusive survey data compiled for Telegraph Travel by travel consultancy The PC Agency and independent market research company AudienceNet, polling 2,139 respondents, shows that 62 per cent of the population supports a test on arrivals in the UK over the current 14-day quarantine, and more than half would be willing to cover the costs of a test.