First transatlantic flight with mandatory Covid tests lands at London Heathrow

Passengers staying in UK will still be obliged to self-isolate for 14 days in accordance with normal quarantine regulations

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Tuesday 17 November 2020 12:08
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First all-pre-tested flight from New York arrives at Heathrow
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A transatlantic flight on which all on board have tested negative for coronavirus has touched down in London.

United Airlines flight 14 from Newark airport in New York to Heathrow landed at 6.41am. It is the first in a series of a dozen transatlantic flights in November and December for which the crew and all passengers aged two and above are obliged to take a free Covid test before boarding the plane.

Each passenger takes a nucleic acid amplification test, known as NAAT, at Newark airport. They are not believed to be as reliable as the PCR tests used by the NHS.

One of just 37 passengers booked on the 300-seat aircraft tested positive and was told to postpone their trip. 

Travellers booked on the flight who do not wish to take the test can switch to another departure free of charge.

During the flight all United’s usual Covid protocols were followed. One passenger, Jodie Williams from Chicago, said: "The test was simple. Just a nasal swab, and you knew the results in 10 minutes.

“We can’t depend on people to get vaccines when they are available, and you can’t depend on people to follow the rules. But if you can at least show that everyone’s negative it will open the borders.”

Although the passengers tested negative for coronavirus in New York, anyone intending to stay in the UK will still be obliged to self-isolate for 14 days in accordance with normal quarantine regulations. The pre-flight health check makes no difference.

Richard Quest, business editor-at-large for CNN, was on board. He told The Independent: "A prospective passenger at Newark did test positive for Covid. So they were obviously looked after but they weren’t able to travel.

"I think that’s what United says proves the point: the significance of pre-departure testing.“Quarantines are a killer for the industry. Therefore United is basically saying, ‘try this’. It’s the way forward."

United hopes the trial will provide data to support pre-flight testing as a way to reduce or eliminate quarantine.

Toby Enqvist, chief customer officer, said: “These flights are a good proof-of-concept for governments around the world that are considering making testing part of the travel experience.”

The airline already employs pre-flight testing between San Francisco and Hawaii. The island state requires visitors either to quarantine for two weeks or to produce a negative test result. 

Ticket sales between San Francisco and Hawaii almost doubled when tests were introduced, even though passengers had to cover the cost of tests.

Last week the German national airline, Lufthansa, introduced mandatory pre-flight testing on specific flights between Munich and Hamburg. The tests are free, and passengers who do not wish to be tested will be transferred to an alternative flight at no additional cost.

Travellers can instead present a negative PCR test taken in the past 48 hours. Lufthansa takes care of the complete rapid test procedure.

Ola Hansson, chief executive of Lufthansa Hub Munich, said: “We want to again expand the worldwide travel options for our customers while maintaining the highest hygiene and safety standards.

“Successful testing of entire flights can be an important key to this.”

Munich airport’s chief executive, Jost Lammers, called it “a positive and important signal for the industry,” and said: "This could mean that in future, if the appropriate international agreements are reached, cross-border travel without the obligatory quarantine obligation could once again be possible.”

The UK government’s Global Travel Taskforce is believed to have recommended to the prime minister that the current two weeks of self-isolation for arriving travellers be roughly halved.

The taskforce, headed by the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, has concluded that travellers who take a private PCR test after five or seven days should be allowed to end quarantine if the result is negative.

At present residents of England and Wales are not allowed to go on holiday abroad. But that restriction is expected to lift from 3 December.

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