On Tuesday, the first proven Covid-19-free flight will touch down at London Heathrow from New York’s Newark airport. It’s the first plane to arrive in a month-long trial that is hoped will get the travel bridge between the U.K. and the U.S. up and running again.
It will be Covid-19-free because all the passengers and crew onboard the United Airlines flight will have been tested for Covid-19, at the airport immediately before they fly, and only travelers with negative results will be allowed to travel.
According to a company statement, United Airlines said, “from November 16 through December 11, the airline will offer rapid tests to every passenger over 2 years old and crew members on board select flights from Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) to London Heathrow (LHR), free of charge. Anyone who does not wish to be tested will be placed on another flight, guaranteeing everyone on board other than children under two will have tested negative before departure.”
The U.S. imposed a travel restriction on March 14, from anyone arriving directly from the U.K. and whilst the U.K. is allowing U.S. arrivals, they must quarantine for 14 days.
The economic value of flights between the U.K. and the U.S. shouldn’t be underestimated. A leading aviation industry company calculated that with an expected 85% decrease in flight capacity planned between the U.K. and the U.S. from October onwards, approximately £32 million is wiped off U.K. GDP each day.
Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye called the report’s findings “a stark warning that action is needed immediately to safely open up connections with our key trading partners in the US”.
Industry professionals have been pushing for rapid PCR testing at airports to allow passengers to board planes after taking a test upon arrival at the airport, rather than having to quarantine upon arrival for 14 days. It makes sense to use the U.K.’s most valuable route to begin with—from New York to London. Other airlines, such as Virgin Atlantic, are trialling other routes and airports.
United Airlines is also piloting a new digital health application called Common Pass, where information is shared between governments using a standardized form, meaning that passengers don’t need to carry different papers and forms across different borders.
Travelers are given an online account by the lab where they’re tested for Covid-19—Common Pass logs in to their respective lab’s system and pulls their results into the app. This information is shared at each border—in the first trial at the end of October, passengers showed a QR code with data to officials at Heathrow and then again, when they landed to officials at Newark airport.
On 10 November, the U.K. government signaled that it was ready to expand rapid airport testing for Covid-19 across all U.K. airports should the results of several trials prove their effectiveness.