United Airlines creates pilot program for on-site rapid PCR tests, as other airlines facilitate at-home specimen collection for rapid coronavirus testing

Four US airlines attempting to recover lost business due to the COVID-19 pandemic are partnering with developers of rapid RT-PCR (reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction) tests to facilitate testing of passengers either at airports before they board their flights, at drive-through testing sites, or at-home in advance of scheduled travel.

This would be a great opportunity for clinical laboratories to gain business, but few details are known about how these airlines are selecting providers for the COVID-19 tests that will be part of their programs.

The deals come amid calls from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) “for the development and deployment of rapid, accurate, affordable, easy-to-operate, scalable and systematic COVID-19 testing for all passengers before departure as an alternative to quarantine measures” in many countries, states an IATA press release.

“The key to restoring the freedom of mobility across borders is systematic COVID-19 testing of all travelers before departure,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA Director General and CEO, in the IATA press release. “This will give governments the confidence to open their borders without complicated risk models that see constant changes in the rules imposed on travel.”

From a clinical laboratory testing perspective, the requirement for passengers to be tested prior to travel may contribute to two changes in the lab testing marketplace:

  • Consumers may become accustomed to buying home collection kits for COVID-19 and sending specimens to clinical laboratories. This could have the added benefit of helping consumers become comfortable doing this for other diagnostic tests as well.
  • Pursuit of profit from manufacturing COVID-19 tests that utilize consumer-collected specimens may increase competition in this market and would likely increase the number of at-home specimen collection products that are easier and more convenient to use.

US carriers offering the COVID-19 tests include United Airlines, American Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, and JetBlue.

United Airlines

United is providing on-site testing through pilot programs at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR). At SFO, passengers are tested before taking flights to Hawaii. At EWR, they are tested prior to boarding a thrice-weekly flight to London Heathrow.

“We believe the ability to provide fast, same-day COVID-19 testing will play a vital role in safely reopening travel around the world and navigating quarantines and travel restrictions, particularly to key international destinations like London,” said Toby Enqvist, United’s Chief Customer Officer, in a press release.

United began offering testing at SFO on Oct. 15. According to “COVID-19 Testing for United Travelers,” the San Francisco to Hawaii passengers have two options:

  • A $105 drive-through test administered two or three days prior to flights by Color, a San Francisco Bay area health technology company.

The airline says a negative test ensures that travelers can bypass Hawaii’s mandatory quarantine requirements in Lihue, Maui, and Honolulu. For the Newark-to-London flights, United plans to run a pilot rapid testing program from Nov. 16 to Dec. 11. for passengers boarding Flight 14, departing at 7:15 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Premise Health will administer the testing, which will be free to passengers. Those who choose not to be tested will be placed on other flights.

American Airlines testing passengers for COVID-19
A United Airlines flight attendant (above) receives an RT-PCR test for COVID-19 prior to boarding. If the flying public embraces preflight coronavirus testing, including at-home specimen collection kits, clinical laboratories may see a spike in requests for test processing. (Photo copyright: The Washington Post.)

American Airlines

American is offering COVID-19 testing for passengers scheduled on flights to Hawaii, Latin America, and the Caribbean, according to a press release. For the most part, these are at-home specimen collection RT-PCR tests provided by healthcare testing services company PrivaPath Diagnostics, Inc. (d.b.a., LetsGetChecked). Customers receive their results within 24 to 72 hours after the lab receives the samples.

On flights from Dallas Fort Worth International Airport to Hawaii and Costa Rica, passengers have the option of on-site rapid testing at the airport or in-person testing at CareNow urgent care facilities in North Texas.

As with the United flights to Hawaii, the testing program allows passengers to bypass quarantine requirements at their destinations. Customers pay $119 for the LetsGetChecked at-home specimen-collection kit and subsequent RT-PCR testing.

“Our initial preflight testing has performed remarkably well, including terrific customer feedback about the ease and availability of testing options,” American Airlines President Robert Isom said in the press release.

Hawaiian Airlines and JetBlue

In separate press releases, Hawaiian Airlines and JetBlue announced partnerships with Vault Health to offer at-home saliva tests to passengers. After receiving the at-home specimen collection kit, customers can connect through Zoom video conferencing with a Vault Health supervisor who ensures the sample is collected properly.

Hawaiian Airlines also offers drive-through testing at SFO and Los Angeles International Airport through a partnership with Worksite Labs. Passengers pay $90 to receive test results within 36 hours or $150 for express service on the day of travel. Worksite uses a Droplet Digital PCR shallow nasal swab test. The airline says it plans to expand this to other airports.

The Vault Health and Worksite Labs tests meet the state’s guidelines for exemption from the 14-day quarantine requirement, the airlines say.

Impact on Medical Laboratories

Airlines offering COVID-19 testing to their passengers may trigger both an opportunity and a change in the clinical laboratory testing marketplace. First, there is a business opportunity for labs to provide rapid molecular SARS-COV-2 tests to airlines.

Second, if consumers begin using at-home specimen collection kits in greater numbers as part of their air travel requirements, might this make them more comfortable doing self-collection for other types of clinical laboratory tests? A shift in consumer willingness to collect their own medical laboratory specimens—accompanied by ongoing innovations in diagnostic technologies, may eventually reduce the need for medical labs to operate extensive networks of patient service centers.

Of course, such a scenario is years away. But airline COVID-19 testing programs are just one of the progressive steps that can help make that possibility into a reality.

—Stephen Beale

Related Information:

These U.S. Airlines Are Offering Pre-Flight Covid-19 Testing—for a Price

United Airlines Launches World’s First Free Transatlantic COVID-19 Testing Pilot

American Airlines Takes First Steps to Open International Markets to Travel with Preflight COVID-19 Testing

American Airlines Adds Costa Rica to Preflight COVID-19 Testing Program