Virgin is first UK airline to introduce pre-flight testing for cabin crew

Annabel Fenwick-Elliott
·3-min read
The pilot scheme is underway at Heathrow on flights to New York and Hong Hong - getty
The pilot scheme is underway at Heathrow on flights to New York and Hong Hong - getty

Virgin Atlantic has become the first British airline to launch pre-flight Covid-19 testing for its cabin crew.

The programme, which has been running since September 30 from the carrier's Heathrow base, operates on flights departing to Hong Kong and Shanghai. It plans to include Barbados and other destinations later this month.

Cabin crew and pilots are swabbed before boarding, with results delivered within 30 minutes. The rapid 'FRANKD' test is described as 97 per cent accurate at detecting Covid-19, requires no laboratory referral, and sends results to an app. 

Ultimately, Virgin hopes to be testing all crew across its network at least once per month. 

Since flights started operating again to and the from the UK, there has been at least one instance in which a BA flight attendant caught the virus after a flight from London to Hong Kong. The infected employee was transferred to hospital, while the 12 remaining cabin crew were moved to a government facility to quarantine for 14 days.

It is hoped that pre-flight testing would help prevent these situations in future.

Corneel Koster, Chief Customer and Operating Officer of Virgin Atlantic, said: "As testing technology and Covid-19 requirements around the world develop, we want to utilise technology that is relevant, accurate and available to keep our teams and customers healthy and safe. 

Koster was keen to stress that the airline will not 'compete' with the NHS lab-based testing, but rather complement it.

"While the Covid-19 testing landscape evolves, we continue to be in discussions with multiple providers offering different technologies to guarantee the best solution possible, while absolutely ensuring that we do not compete with the NHS for vital resources."

Koster also issued a renewed call to the Government to get airport testing for passengers up and running.

"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. 

"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."

The Telegraph's Test4Travel campaign, which has the backing of readers and a growing number of health experts and politicians, also calls for an end to the current 14-day quarantine requirements.

On Tuesday, news broke that this self-isolation period could be reduced to eight days within weeks under plans from the Government to introduce tests for arrivals from "red-list" countries.

The Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, is expected to make an announcement as soon as Thursday, and will signal the Government's intention to enable travellers to cut short their quarantine by having a single coronavirus test on the eighth day of their 14 days of self-isolation. If the result is negative, they would be freed from the restrictions.

A taskforce would be set up to work on concrete plans for testing before Christmas. Tests would have to be paid for by travellers to avoid putting pressure on current NHS capacity.

Last week, 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".

"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."