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COVID-19

Airlines to start offering pre-flight COVID tests

Andy Uhler Oct 14, 2020
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A passenger checks in for a United Airlines flight at Los Angeles International Airport on Oct. 1. Mario Tama/Getty Images
COVID-19

Airlines to start offering pre-flight COVID tests

Andy Uhler Oct 14, 2020
Heard on:
A passenger checks in for a United Airlines flight at Los Angeles International Airport on Oct. 1. Mario Tama/Getty Images
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United Airlines will become the first U.S. airline Thursday to launch COVID-19 testing. The airline will run a pilot program for people traveling from San Francisco International Airport to Hawaii.

American Airlines and JetBlue have said they’re likely to offer testing soon, as well.

Because for airlines, providing access to tests is about stimulating demand, which is still in the tank.

“Without easy access to testing, people likely won’t get on planes,” said Zach Griff, who covers the airline industry for the travel website, The Points Guy. He said airlines are trying to break down barriers for travelers.

And United said that extends beyond when people are on the plane.

“Right now, Hawaii has in place a mandatory 14-day quarantine for people who are traveling to Hawaii. And the only way to bypass that quarantine is to get one of these state-approved tests,” said Josh Earnest, Chief Communications Officer for United Airlines.

That means instead of spending the first two weeks in a hotel room, Hawaii visitors will be free to move around the islands. 

At the airport, United said it will offer a 15-minute test, but the airline is just the facilitator. A health care provider will be in charge of the actual testing and reporting the results to passengers.

Griff at The Points Guy said for airlines, more flights to Hawaii is great, but what they really want to do is lay the groundwork for the return of business travel. 

“And the reason why is because if this is a successful launch, and airlines can get customers to get on planes, they will convince passengers slowly but surely that business travel can restart by using similar pre-travel testing programs,” he said.

Business travel is the most lucrative part of most airline operations. 

From a public health standpoint, virologist Makeda Robinson at Stanford University said more testing is good, but the rapid tests United and others will be using aren’t always accurate. 

“This kind of sets up a situation where there may be a false sense of security,” she said.

Some passengers could test negative but be carrying the virus. 

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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