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Could an Airline’s Experiment Work for Meetings?

United’s Covid-testing pilot program launching this month might inspire event copycats.

Last week, United Airlines announced free Covid-19 testing for customers on select flights between Newark Liberty International Airport and London Heathrow. The four-and-a-half week pilot program, November 16 through December 11, requires every passenger over two years old and crew members to test negative immediately prior to departure. Passengers who test positive are not allowed to fly (until they get a negative test result in the future), and those who prefer not to be tested by the airline are also barred and must rebook on a different flight.

With the mandatory testing program, United hopes to create more confidence in air travel and a safer long-haul environment. Travelers are asked to book a testing appointment in advance and arrive at the airport about three hours before their flights. Results are provided in 30 minutes. Proof of a negative Covid test in the days prior to the flight does not excuse a traveler from being tested through United.

While rapid-testing technologies are known to have a higher rate of false negatives than polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that can take days to get a result, mandatory rapid testing could be a valuable layer of security for airline passengers—or meeting attendees—when combined with mask wearing and social distancing. At the end of August, the FDA authorized the emergency-use approval for Abbott Laboratories’ 15-minute Covid tests, which sell for about $5 each. These are expected to be widely available to the public by the end of the year.

United isn’t the first airline to get involved in Covid testing, but it is the first with a mandatory, free program. For a fee, American Airlines, Hawaiian, JetBlue, and United will test passengers who want to avoid quarantine restrictions in their destination. For example, United offers testing for flights between San Francisco and Hawaii—$250 for day-of tests and $105 for drive-through tests within 72 hours of a flight. A negative result means a traveler can skip the islands’ mandatory 14-day quarantine.Airports are also getting involved in testing. Last week, New York’s LaGuardia Airport opened a Covid testing site in Terminal B, and it’s free to all passengers with no insurance required. The clinic is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., no appointment is needed, and results are provided within 48 hours.

Tampa International was the first airport in the country with a Covid-testing facility available to any traveler. Its one-month pilot program, which began October 1, has now been extended through the end of the year. Travelers can get a rapid test for $60 or the more-accurate PRC swabs for $150 in the main terminal from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to noon Saturday and Sunday.

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