Airlines hope a breakthrough to reassure passengers who are worried about contracting the coronavirus on flights is finally coming – the ability to offer testing.
On Tuesday, American Airlines joined JetBlue Airways, United and Hawaiian airlines in announcing it plans to provide tests that can prove passengers don’t have COVID-19, allowing them to bypass quarantine restrictions depending on where they are traveling.
“Our plan for this initial phase of preflight testing reflects the ingenuity and care our team is putting into rebuilding confidence in air travel,” American Airlines President Robert Isom said in a statement.
The testing will be provided as a convenience to travelers. The airlines are not making them mandatory, and they are not free. Prices range from $80 to $250, depending on the airline and how the tests are done.
The plan falls short of some of the lofty hopes airlines voiced amid the coronavirus pandemic. Four of them called on the United States and European Union to create testing programs that would jump-start flights across the Atlantic.
“We believe it is critical to find a way to reopen air services between the U.S. and Europe.” United, American, Lufthansa and International Airlines Group, the parent company of British Airways, wrote in July.
Monday, President Donald Trump announced that 150 million rapid tests will be distributed to high-risk facilities such as nursing homes and to states and territories, although he didn’t mention the travel industry. Hawaii’s COVID-19 Joint Information Center said the state, which plans to allow negative test results in lieu of quarantine for entry, doesn’t plan to use its allotment of tests for visitors.
Here’s what travelers need to know about the airlines’ testing programs:
How is it going to work?
It’s different for each airline. Depending on the airline, the tests can be administered at home or taken in person at clinics at or near designated airports. In United’s case, the test results are given to the passenger on paper or electronically to present to authorities in Hawaii.
American said it will offer rapid testing at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport for Hawaii flights through a clinic chain called CareNow starting Oct. 15. It also will offer at-home testing through LetsGetChecked,
United is working with GoHealth Urgent Care and its partner Dignity Health, initiating testing from a single airport, San Francisco International, for flights to Hawaii. It is also offering at-home tests with Color Genomics.
Hawaiian said Worksite Labs will have advance and day-of-travel test options. They will be available at drive-thru locations near San Francisco International and Los Angeles International airports.
JetBlue is offering an at-home saliva test through Vault Health. It is administered through an online video connection to make sure it is done correctly.
Why is this happening?
Certain countries, some of them in the Caribbean, and states, including Hawaii, will allow passengers who have had a negative test result for the coronavirus within 72 hours of their plane’s departure from the mainland to not have to quarantine for 14 days. Hawaii’s policy begins Oct. 15, the same day that American, United and Hawaiian start their passenger testing initiatives.
Besides Hawaii, American will launch a test program at Miami International Airport next month to provide testing for Jamaican residents returning to their home country, with hopes of expanding it to other visitors. JetBlue, which serves many destinations in the Caribbean, said it is offering tests for countries that allow negative test results for entry.
Rapid testing, in particular, could help solve what has been one of the biggest problems for the travel industry: making sure no one who has COVID-19 is allowed to board. One of the most sinister aspects of the virus is that some people carrying it are asymptomatic, not exhibiting a fever, cough or other symptoms that would get them turned away before boarding.
What kind of tests are they?
United’s rapid test and the JetBlue and Hawaiian tests are so-called PCR tests, which can be more sensitive than rapid antigen tests. United’s at-home test uses what Color calls RT-LAMP technology, which it says is as accurate as PCR, The tests generally involve taking samples via a shallow swab of the nostrils, as opposed to the deeper insertions into the nose earlier in the pandemic. JetBlue cautions, however, that “many but not all” jurisdictions allow home-administered PCR tests or saliva-based tests, so travelers need to do a little research on the requirements at their destinations in making testing arrangements. American didn’t disclose the science behind its tests.
What will airline testing cost?
United is charging $250 at the airport or $80 for the at-home test, and passengers have to spring for overnight delivery. Hawaiian’s test is $90 for the advance test or $150 for day-of-travel express service. JetBlue says the price of $143, including the price of shipping, is $7 less than Vault Health would normally charge. American didn’t immediately disclose pricing.
More: Happy Thanksgiving! Southwest Airlines will leave middle seats open through November
How quickly will results come back?
United says the test at the airport produces results in less than 15 minutes, but the far-cheaper mail-in test requires passengers to initiate the process at least 10 days in advance and submit samples within 72 hours of their flight.
Hawaiian said advance test results are expected within 36 hours. Day-of-travel express service guarantees results are emailed within 12 hours, and generally, before a passenger lands, said airline spokesperson Alex DaSilva.
American said the at-home test will produce results within 48 hours. JetBlue said results of its mail-in tests are expected within 72 hours or less.
What about other airlines?
Other airlines are yet to get on board.
Southwest Airlines had no immediate comment.
Delta, which has been working with the Mayo Clinic to try to find ways to make flying safer, has been testing employees but has made no announcement on passengers yet. “We continue to evaluate new measures to ensure a safe experience,” spokesperson Maria Moraitakis said.
Does a passenger have to use the airline’s test?
“We are simply providing customers with options to secure a test,” said JetBlue spokesman Derek Dombrowski. “There is no JetBlue requirement to use Vault.”
More: Spirit Airlines reiterates mask policy, CDC standards after passenger refuses to swap gaiter
Do passengers who test negative still have to wear a mask on the plane?
Yes. All major airlines have mask requirements and most don’t allow medical exceptions.
Are other testing options coming?
Tampa International Airport in Florida announced Tuesday that it will make testing available for departing or arriving passengers . Other airports could offer it as well.
“By demonstrating the efficacy of on-site COVID tests, airports continue to lead by looking for new and proven ways to ensure the health and safety of the traveling public and limit the spread of COVID-19,” said Kevin Burke, president for Airports Council International in North America, in a statement.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Airlines’ COVID-19 tests: What to know about American, United, others