Transatlantic partners British Airways and American Airlines have joined rival United Airlines in introducing Covid-19 testing on selected fights from the US to London.
The combined effort by the pair of Oneworld Alliance carriers is to “scientifically demonstrate” to ministers how testing for the virus can reopen international travel and remove the need for passengers to quarantine on arrival.
The free tests will initially be offered to eligible passengers booked on selected BA New York JFK and Los Angeles flights to Heathrow and AA from Dallas/Fort Worth to the London hub.
Tests will be expanded to AA flying from New York to Heathrow at a later date.
The initiative came as the first ‘Covid-free’ flight operated by United landed at Heathrow from Newark on Tuesday at the start of a month-long pilot scheme.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps launched a Global Travel Taskforce last month to developmethods of reducing the 14-day quarantine period with a “test and release regime” which would still involve a self-isolation period of at least a week. The taskforce has yet to report to prime minister Boris Johnson.
Each traveller in the BA-AA trial will take three tests in conjunction with the journey. If a customer tests positive, they should reschedule or cancel their travel.
The first test, to be taken 72 hours before departure from the US, is an at-home RT-PCR test. Passengers collect a nasal sample, under the supervision of medical professionals via a virtual visit.
They will receive a Lamp test on arrival at Heathrow followed by a third test three days after arrival in the UK.
The three-test approach aims to validate a customer’s negative status for Covid-19 throughout the journey and provide insight into the most effective and practical testing interval.
The third test is intended to further confirm the results of the first two tests, to demonstrate that one or two tests will be sufficient to allow travel to safely restart.
A task force comprising Oneworld member airline representatives and independent medical experts will monitor the trial and share results with the US and UK governments.
The objective is to “demonstrate the essential role that Covid-19 testing programmes can play in safely restarting travel”.
BA and AA flew to more than 30 destinations in the US from London with up to 111 flights a week between London and New York prior to the pandemic. That figure is down to just 14 flights a week combined on the New York route.
International travellers arriving in the UK from the US are required to self-isolate for 14 days even if they have tested negative for Covid-19.
The tests being used as part of the trial will not impact National Health Service testing capacity, according to the carriers.
BA and AA have worked with Heathrow on implementation of the trial at Terminal 5. The airport is now exploring whether trials can be introduced on more routes to the US.
BA chief executive Sean Doyle, said: “We know people want to travel but our skies remain all but closed and the UK is being left behind. Major economies like Germany are adopting testing to replace quarantine.
“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.
“We are confident this approach would open routes, stimulate economies and get people travelling with confidence. The UK’s economic recovery depends on the swift reopening of its skies.”
His AA counterpart Doug Parker said: “American has already successfully introduced a pre-flight Covid-19 testing programme for customers travelling from the US 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.”
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