United to test program that ensures passengers on some Newark-to-Heathrow flights are COVID-free

Airline, after success elsewhere, feels mandatory testing-at-airport program is step toward reopening international travel — and global economy

United Airlines announced Thursday morning that it is initiating a four-week pilot program where customers traveling from Newark Liberty International Airport to London Heathrow will be given a free COVID-19 test at Newark airport — and those who test negative for the virus will be allowed to take the transatlantic flight with confidence that all of the passengers and crew members are COVID-free.

The pilot program will take place from Nov. 16-Dec. 11 on United Flight 14, which departs at 7:15 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

United officials said passengers and crew members will be given a rapid molecular Abbott ID Now COVID-19 test, administered by Premise Health at the United Club near gate C93. Passengers not willing to take the test will be placed on other flights.

United officials, in a conference call Wednesday, were quick to point out that the results will not have an impact on quarantine rules and restrictions in the United Kingdom and will not change the strict mask and safety requirements for passengers on the flight.

But Aaron McMillan, managing director of operations policy and support, said the airline has high hopes that this proof-of-concept test could be the mechanism to reopening long-haul travel across the globe.

“Our hope is that this pilot will build confidence among local governments and agencies to either reduce or eliminate blanket quarantine restrictions that we see across the globe,” he said. “We’re also looking forward to sharing feedback on this pilot with government officials in both the U.S. and U.K., demonstrating the effectiveness of what we expect to be a highly successful program. …

“This can be a great way to open up travel corridors and stimulate traffic and demand and support the economy.”

United officials said they are bullish on the idea because they feel they already have proof such a program can work.

On Oct. 15, the airline started a similar program with passengers and crew members flying from San Francisco to Hawaii. On this flight, United passengers are given proof that they are COVID-free, which — upon landing in Hawaii — exempts them from state-imposed quarantine rules.

In the first 10 days of the program, the airline said it has seen the number of travelers on those flights increase by nearly 95%.

Josh Earnest, the former White House spokesperson who now serves as the chief communications officer for United, said the early returns are very encouraging.

“What it tells us is that there’s a very favorable reaction among our customers to that kind of testing,” he said. “It gives them another layer of assurance about the safety of their travel. It also makes them more likely to travel. And, knowing that they can then be exempted from the quarantine in Hawaii puts them in a situation where they can enjoy the Hawaiian vacation they’ve been thinking about (while) they’re cooped up at home.”

Earnest said the Hawaiian test shows the impact airline travel has on the global economy.

“It’s not just twice as many people who are flying United to Hawaii, it’s twice as many people who are staying in hotel rooms, eating out at restaurants and enjoying all that Hawaii tourism has to offer.

“We are bullish on the prospect that customer testing can begin reopening long-haul traveling.”

United officials are not the only ones sold on this type of program.

Hawaiian officials were so pleased with the program that they initiated a similar program with certain flights from Japan, beginning Nov. 6.

Here’s how the program will work in Newark.

Appointments for the test are required, and United said passengers are advised to schedule their tests at least three hours before their flight. Passengers will be social distanced from each other until they are determined to be COVID-free, a process that should take about 15 minutes.

The pilot program is just a one-way effort, meaning passengers do not have the option of getting tested before their return flight from Heathrow to Newark — and meaning they will be subject to New Jersey quarantine restrictions upon their return.

United officials said they are hopeful they can reach some type of agreement with government officials on both sides of the Atlantic after they have proven their concept. Any such agreement, they said, would made through the federal government, not New Jersey officials.

The program is about more than just Newark and Heathrow — which was United’s most popular route pre-pandemic.

United officials said one of the purposes behind the pilot program is to show other global destinations that United has the ability to bring passengers that are COVID-free to their airports.

“We firmly believe that testing is a key component of a multilayered approach to safely opening travel across the globe,” McMillan said.