Airlines to start offering pre-flight COVID tests

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

Airlines to start offering pre-flight COVID tests

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

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

How many people are flying? Has traveled picked up?

Flying is starting to recover to levels the airline industry hasn’t seen in months. The Transportation Security Administration announced on Oct. 19 that it’s screened more than 1 million passengers on a single day — its highest number since March 17. The TSA also screened more than 6 million passengers last week, its highest weekly volume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While travel is improving, the TSA announcement comes amid warnings that the U.S. is in the third wave of the coronavirus. There are now more than 8 million cases in the country, with more than 219,000 deaths.

How are Americans feeling about their finances?

Nearly half of all Americans would have trouble paying for an unexpected $250 bill and a third of Americans have less income than before the pandemic, according to the latest results of our Marketplace-Edison Poll. Also, 6 in 10 Americans think that race has at least some impact on an individual’s long-term financial situation, but Black respondents are much more likely to think that race has a big impact on a person’s long-term financial situation than white or Hispanic/Latinx respondents.

Find the rest of the poll results here, which cover how Americans have been faring financially about six months into the pandemic, race and equity within the workplace and some of the key issues Trump and Biden supporters are concerned about.

What’s going to happen to retailers, especially with the holiday shopping season approaching?

A report out recently from the accounting consultancy BDO USA said 29 big retailers filed for bankruptcy protection through August. And if bankruptcies continue at that pace, the number could rival the bankruptcies of 2010, after the Great Recession. For retailers, the last three months of this year will be even more critical than usual for their survival as they look for some hope around the holidays.

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