Because air travel volumes are low, experts believe it is timely to develop COVID-19 testing systems and gain insight on which protocols are most effective

As the COVID-19 pandemic surges on, several international airlines now require customers to complete at-home COVID-19 testing before they can travel. This is triggering unusual business practices. For example, one airline allows its passengers to use frequent flier miles to purchase mail-in COVID-19 test kits.

Frequent Flyer Miles for COVID-19 Testing

Across the United States, Hawaii has one of the lowest rates of infection, partly thanks to the state’s strict quarantine regulations. In a state, however, that depends on tourism for its economic health, the pandemic has caused serious financial difficulties. In an effort to prevent spread of the coronavirus while also encouraging tourism, Hawaiian Airlines now offers “Pre-travel COVID-19 Test Options” on its website.

To be allowed to skip the state’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine before arriving on the islands, flyers can take a pre-travel coronavirus test with the following conditions:

  • The test must be from a state-approved testing provider.
  • The test must be administered no more than 72 hours prior to the scheduled departure time of the final leg to Hawaii.
  • For trans-pacific travel, test results must be received prior to flight departure.

Additionally, the airline accepts frequent flyer miles to pay for mail-in COVID-19 tests. In exchange for 14,000 HawaiianMiles, a passenger receives a test kit in the mail. The kit features a video call during which a healthcare professional guides the consumer on taking a saliva sample. The user then ships the sample to a qualified clinical laboratory. Results are returned electronically within 24 hours of the lab receiving the sample.

Hawaii’s COVID-19 portal states, “The state of Hawaii will ONLY accept Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (NAAT) from a certified Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment (CLIA) lab test results from Trusted Testing and Travel Partners” that are participating in the state’s pre-travel testing program. Honolulu and Maui are the only two arrival airports allowed. A negative result must have come from a test performed within 72 hours prior to the final leg of the passenger’s trip to Hawaii, according to the portal.

“A negative pre-travel test is an alternative to two weeks in self-isolation for arrivals to the archipelago,” the UK’s Independent reported.

JetBlue and Vault Health Partner to Offer COVID Testing to Airline Passengers

In another instance of an airline getting involved in at-home testing, JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU) is partnering with Vault Health to offer at-home testing. The process is similar to the Hawaiian Airlines program. However, rather than purchasing the test with frequent flyer miles, JetBlue offers polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests at a discount.

Business Travel News reported that passengers must provide a confirmation code while ordering the $119 test from Vault Health’s webpage. “Vault provides a kit for an at-home saliva test, and users administrate it while on a video chat supervised by Vault to ensure the test is done properly. The user sends it overnight to a clinical laboratory and the results are provided within 72 hours,” Business Travel News stated.

Joanna Geraghty of JetBlue
“We continue to hear from health officials that [COVID-19] testing is incredibly important in the fight against the coronavirus, and we want to make sure our customers have options for testing, especially prior to travel,” said Joanna Geraghty, President and Chief Operating Officer, JetBlue, in a press release. “As more and more regions reopen, many are requiring test results to enter. Now with easier testing options, those safety requirements may not be a deterrent for travel, but rather provide greater public health and peace of mind with little inconvenience.” (Photo copyright: Spectrum News NY1.)

In “Coronavirus Testing Before Flying Could Become the Norm as Airlines Try to Boost Confidence and Woo Travelers,” the Washington Post reported, “There is no common standard, so it has been left to airlines and airports to design their own SARS-CoV-2 testing programs and for travelers to sort out requirements for their particular destination.”

In addition to airlines such as Hawaii Airlines and JetBlue instituting programs for coronavirus testing, some airports are as well. Tampa International Airport, for example, test-piloted a voluntary testing program for all arriving and departing passengers from October 1st to October 31st. The airport partnered with BayCare, a 15-hospital Tampa area healthcare network, to provide both rapid antigen and PCR tests.

“Testing services will be offered on a walk-in basis … seven days a week from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. The pilot will be open to all ticketed passengers who are flying or have flown within three days and can show proof of travel. The PCR COVID-19 test costs $125 and the antigen test costs $57,” a press release stated.

Tampa Airport CEO Joe Lopano told the Washington Post, “This could be—especially if adopted by other airports—another way to instill confidence.”

COVID-19 Testing by Retailers Expanding as Well

Travelers aren’t the only people who need testing. Some employers also are requiring negative tests before employees can return to work.

In “Costco Begins Selling an At-Home Self-Collection COVID-19 Test Kit; One of 12 Kits That Have Received FDA Emergency Use Authorization,” Dark Daily reported on retail giant Costco’s (NASDAQ:COST) response to increased demand for COVID-19 testing by offering direct-to-consumer, at-home test kits to its members. The kits sell at two price points: $129 for a “basic” kit, and $139 for a kit that includes “Video observation for travel.” The more expensive test is accepted by Hawaii for its Trusted Testing Partner Program.

As with all at-home kits, the consumer collects their own specimen and sends it off to a qualified clinical laboratory for processing. AZOVA, a telehealth company, supplies the kits to Costco for resale and provides a smartphone app where customers can check and display the test results.

P23 Labs’ TaqPath SARS-CoV-2 assay is the test being used, which, according to P23, “has a 98% sensitivity and 99% specificity,” Business Insider reported.

When COVID-19 Testing Fails

Of course, coronavirus testing isn’t 100% guaranteed. The Independent reported in November that a passenger on a Dubai to New Zealand flight who had tested negative prior to flying, was, in fact, positive for coronavirus and had infected seven other passengers during the flight. New Zealand’s Institute of Environmental Science and Research conducted and published a study following the incident, titled, “A Case Study of Extended In-Flight Transmission of SARS-Cov-2 En Route to Aotearoa New Zealand.”

The researchers found that “All seven SARS-CoV-2 genomes were genetically identical, with the exception of a single mutation in one case, and all genomes had five signature mutations seen in only six other genomes from the >155,000 genomes sequenced globally. Four of these six related genome sequences were from Switzerland, the country of origin of the suspected index case.”

They added, “By combining information on disease progression, travel dynamics, and genomic analysis, we conclude that at least four in-flight transmission events of SARS-CoV-2 likely took place.”

At-home test kits for COVID-19 are here to stay. That large businesses in multiple industries are now partnering with COVID-19 test developers and clinical laboratory companies to accomplish testing of customers and employees means independent labs that process coronavirus testing can look forward to increasing COVID-19 testing business.

“We need to be using the time now, when [travel] volumes are relatively low, to test the systems and gain insight on which protocols are most effective,” Mara Aspinall, biomedical diagnostics professor at Arizona State University, President and CEO of the Health Catalysts Group, an investment and advisory firm, and former President/CEO of Ventana Medical Systems (now Roche Tissue Diagnostics), a billion-dollar division of Swiss pharmaceutical and diagnostics manufacturer Roche, told the Washington Post.

—Dava Stewart

Related Information:

‘Swap Frequent-Flyer Miles for COVID Test’ Says Airline

Negative COVID-19 Test Result Required Prior to Departure to Avoid 14-Day Quarantine in Hawaii. Tests ONLY Accepted from TRUSTED TESTING AND TRAVEL PARTNERS

JetBlue to Give Passengers At-Home Covid-19 Testing Access

JetBlue to Offer At-Home Pre-Travel COVID-19 Tests

JetBlue and Vault Health Partner to Make At-Home COVID-19 Tests More Widely Available to Customers

Coronavirus Testing Before Flying Could Become the Norm as Airlines Try to Boost Confidence and Woo Travelers

TPA Launches First in the Nation COVID-19 Testing for All Departing and Arriving Passengers

Domestic U.S. Travel Advisories

American Airlines Expands At-Home Coronavirus Testing

COVID: Passenger Infected Four Others on Flight After Testing Negative, Report Says

A Case Study of Extended In-Flight Transmission of SARS-Cov-2 En Route to Aotearoa New Zealand

Costco Begins Selling an At-Home Self-Collection COVID-19 Test Kit; One of 12 Kits That Have Received FDA Emergency Use Authorization