As American, United, other airlines roll out passenger testing for COVID-19, here’s what you need to know

Airlines hope a breakthrough to reassure passengers worried about contracting the coronavirus on flights is finally coming – the ability to offer testing.

On Tuesday, American Airlines joined JetBlue Airways, United and Hawaiian airlines in announcing it plans to provide tests that can prove passengers don’t have COVID-19, allowing them to bypass quarantine restrictions depending on where they are traveling.

“Our plan for this initial phase of preflight testing reflects the ingenuity and care our team is putting into rebuilding confidence in air travel,” American Airlines President Robert Isom said in a statement.

The testing will be provided as a convenience to travelers. The airlines are not making them mandatory, and they are not free. Prices range from $80 to $250, depending on the airline and how the tests are conducted.

The plan falls short of some of the lofty hopes airlines voiced during the coronavirus pandemic.  Four of them called on the United States and European Union to create testing programs that would jump-start flights across the Atlantic.

“We believe it is critical to find a way to reopen air services between the U.S. and Europe.” United, American, Lufthansa and International Airlines Group, the parent company of British Airways, wrote in July.

Monday,  President Donald Trump announced that 150 million rapid tests will be distributed to high-risk facilities such as nursing homes and to states and territories, although he didn’t mention the travel industry. Hawaii’s COVID-19 Joint Information Center said the state, which plans to allow negative test results in lieu of quarantine for entry, doesn’t plan to use its allotment of tests for visitors. 

Here’s what travelers need to know about the airlines’ testing programs:

How is it going to work?

It’s different for each airline. Depending on the airline, the tests can be administered at home or taken in person at clinics at or near designated airports.In United’s case, the test results are given to the passenger on paper or electronically to present to authorities in Hawaii.

American said it will offer rapid testing at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport for Hawaii flights through a clinic chain called CareNow starting Oct. 15. It will also offer at-home testing through LetsGetChecked,

United is working with GoHealth Urgent Care and its partner Dignity Health, initiating testing from a single airport, San Francisco International, for flights to Hawaii. It is also offering at-home tests with Color Genomics. 

Hawaiian said Worksite Labs will have both advance and day-of-travel test options. They will be available at drive-thru locations near San Francisco International and Los Angeles International airports.

JetBlue is offering an at-home saliva testthrough Vault Health. It is administered through an online video connection to make sure it is done correctly.

Why is this happening?

Certain countries, some of them in the Caribbean, and states, including Hawaii, will allow passengers who have had a negative test result for the coronavirus within 72 hours of their plane’s departure from the mainland to not have to quarantine for 14 days. Hawaii’s policy begins Oct. 15, the same day that American, United and Hawaiian start their passenger testing initiatives. 

Besides Hawaii, American will launch a test program at its Miami International Airport next month to provide testing for Jamaican residents returning to their home country, with hopes of expanding it to other visitors. JetBlue, which serves many destinations in the Caribbean, said it is offering tests for countries that allow negative test results for entry.

Rapid testing, in particular, could help solve what has been one of the biggest problems for the travel industry: making sure no one who has COVID-19 is allowed to board. One of the most sinister aspects of the virus is that some people carrying it are asymptomatic, not exhibiting a fever, cough or other symptoms that would get them turned away before boarding.

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