British Airways, American Airlines and Oneworld have launched a Covid-19 testing trial on selected flights from the U.S to London Heathrow in a combined effort to scientifically demonstrate how testing for the virus can reopen international travel and quash quarantine requirements.
The new British Airways CEO, Sean Doyle, explained that at the end of the trial he wants to get the data collected into the hands of Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Health Secretary Matt Hancock and ‘prove that we can restart flying safely without the need for quarantine measures’.
The trial will run from November 25 to mid-December and will involve volunteer passengers being tested for free three days before departure in the U.S, upon arrival, and three days later in a bid to demonstrate that a pre-departure test 72 hours before you fly will negate the need for self-isolation.
Are you paying attention Mr Shapps? The new British Airways CEO, Sean Doyle (pictured), explained that he wants to prove to the Transport Secretary and Health Secretary Matt Hancock that Covid tests can quash the need for quarantine
The first test is 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.
They won’t have to quarantine before their flight, but they will upon arrival as all normal government rules apply.
After landing at Heathrow (LHR), participating customers will proceed to their second test at the airport. The ‘Lamp’ test, provided by Collinson, involves the collection of a nasal sample by a medical professional.
After the test is completed, a kit for the third test will be provided to the customer, BA said. The volunteers will use this to self-collect a saliva sample.
The third test, BA said, is intended to further confirm the results of the first two tests, to show that pre-flight testing will allow travel to safely restart.
Mr Doyle said: ‘We can’t get our economy moving with a 14-day quarantine. And our research tells us that reducing it to seven days won’t cut it either’
Based on current UK Government policies, international travellers arriving in the UK from the U.S are required to self-isolate for 14 days even if they have tested negative for coronavirus.
But Mr Doyle said that this measure is hindering the economy.
He said: ‘If we want to get the economy booming again, we need to get people travelling again.
‘We know that travelling is safe. We have minimal reports of transmission on board an aircraft. In fact, data from Iata suggests the risk is very, very low.
‘Since the start of 2020 there have been just 44 cases of Covid linked to flights and over that period over 1.2billion passengers have travelled.
‘Without a pre-flight testing regime, we will be locked in a start-stop cycle where consumers are unclear what the rules of the game are and won’t be in a position to plan with confidence’
‘But we can’t get our economy moving with a 14-day quarantine. And our research tells us that reducing it to seven days won’t cut it either.
‘The vaccine is great news and we are encouraged by that. But the details around when the vaccine will be rolled out and when it would start having a material effect on travel is unclear. So we need solutions in the short term to get travel up and running again.
‘Without a pre-flight testing regime, we will be locked in a start-stop cycle where consumers are unclear what the rules of the game are and won’t be in a position to plan with confidence.
‘We feel we need a process and a regime that people can plan against. And we feel the UK government needs to move quickly as we run the risk of being left behind compared to other countries and jurisdictions, which are being more proactive in this space.’
He pointed to Germany as an example.
‘Germany launched a testing protocol for high-risk countries last week,’ he said, ‘a test-and-release after a five-day quarantine period, but business passengers can actually test 48 hours in advance and after five days they don’t have to quarantine.
‘So they [the Germans] acknowledge the importance of business, they acknowledge the importance of opening up that channel and have created a very elegant solution.
‘We need the UK Government to introduce a system that allows travellers 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.’
Since the start of 2020 there have been just 44 cases of Covid linked to flights and over that period over 1.2billion passengers have travelled, Mr Doyle pointed out
HOW THE BA/AA TRIAL WILL WORK
The trial for each individual passenger will comprise:
- An initial at-home test to be taken 72 hours before departure from the U.S.
- A second test will take place upon arrival at LHR.
- A third test to be taken three days after arrival in the UK.
The joint trial will offer free tests to passengers who choose to participate in the programme.
According to BA, the ultimate objective of this and other trials is to validate that a pre-departure test provides a high level of certainty of a passenger being Covid-19 negative. It’s hoped this certainty will result in policies that further relax U.S and UK border restrictions, including the 14-day quarantine and entry into the U.S.
Mr Doyle is hoping that around 500 passengers will take part in the trial. He said that BA’s scientific advisers consider that a big enough pool to create robust data.
He continued: ‘The reason we’re using three data points is we want to demonstrate that the pre-departure test is robust.
‘We want to have the data so we can engage in the scientific debate comprehensively and completely.
‘We think this is an essential step forward. We think it’s important the UK seizes the initiative in opening up, particularly as we look beyond Brexit and look to being open for business and look to the benefits of travel in terms of trade. We need a framework that consumers can plan against with confidence so that we can begin to resurrect the travel industry and begin to reinstate our network and services more significantly.’
A task force comprising Oneworld member airline representatives and independent medical experts are overseeing the implementation of the trial, which BA said will not impact UK National Health Service testing capacity.
The free tests will initially be offered to eligible customers booked on American Airlines flight AA50 departing Dallas/ Fort Worth (DFW) to LHR; British Airways flight BA114 departing New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) to LHR; and British Airways flight BA268 from Los Angeles (LAX) to LHR, beginning November 25.
The test will be expanded to American Airlines flight AA106 from JFK to LHR, with a launch date yet to be confirmed.
Eligible customers booked on flights that are part of the trial will be contacted by American Airlines and British Airways with instructions on how to volunteer. If a participating customer tests positive, they should reschedule or cancel their travel, BA said.
Mr Doyle added that BA ‘now has the infrastructure in place to scale the testing up quickly’ should it be a success.
‘It’s a trial that can easily be operationalised, converted into a solution,’ he said. ‘And it’s a testing solution, a framework that can be adopted by other carriers pretty quickly.’
Chairman and Chief Executive of American Airlines, Doug Parker, said: ‘American has already successfully introduced a pre-flight Covid-19 testing programme for customers travelling from the U.S to international destinations across the Caribbean and Latin America. We have received tremendous feedback from our customers in response to testing, as it provides peace of mind for safe and enjoyable travel.
‘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.’
Chairman and Chief Executive of American Airlines, Doug Parker, said: ‘We believe the results provided by this trial will be vital for reopening transatlantic travel safely’
Chief Executive of carrier alliance Oneworld, Rob Gurney, said: ‘We believe that Covid-19 testing will play an important role in safely restarting international travel. A comprehensive testing programme 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.’
Prior to the pandemic, together American Airlines and British Airways flew to more than 30 destinations in the U.S from London. Today, the carriers are flying a fraction of that figure. Previously, the carriers operated up to 111 flights a week from London to New York, now they operate 14 flights per week combined, between the two cities.
Mr Doyle said he doesn’t expect the airline industry to recover until 2023.
United Airlines has also introduced a Covid testing trial and the first volunteers in it arrived at Heathrow today on flight UA14 from Newark Liberty International Airport.