NEWS: Airlines work with Heathrow to demonstrate pre-departure testing effectiveness

Heathrow Airport, Terminal 5A, passengers in check-in hall, September 2018

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The results of pre-departure testing trials carried out by four of Heathrow’s transatlantic carriers – American Airlines, British Airways, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic – will be brought together by a study commissioned by the airport to demonstrate the effectiveness of pre-departure testing for passengers on international routes. The final report will be shared with governments on both sides of the Atlantic.

The group study follows on from the Government’s ‘Test to Release’ initiative, which from the 15th December, will give passengers the option to reduce their quarantine period from 14 days to five, providing they test negative for the virus. Whilst the aviation industry has welcomed ‘Test to Release’, it has been clear that the ultimate objective for passenger testing is a pre-departure regime, and the combined airline trials aim to make the case for this much-needed solution. The study will be funded by Heathrow and seeks to provide a better understanding of how pre-departure testing could be used to safely eradicate the need for self-isolation on arrival.  

Heathrow will have access to anonymised testing data generated by each of the separate pre-departure trials being conducted by participating airlines. Each trial is unique to each airline, but these variations will provide richer and more diverse data that will strengthen the study’s conclusions. The cumulative results of the various tests will help the industry and governments to evaluate which pre-departure testing approach is practical and safe enough to replace quarantine and other travel restrictions.   

The number and scale of the carriers involved makes this the largest pre-departures study in the UK. Specialist oversight will be provided by Oxera and Edge Health, who will author the study. Oxera and Edge Health have previously identified a lack of real-world pre-departures data on which to base analysis of the effectiveness of this type of testing model.

The combined trials will be entirely free of charge for passengers and take place on selected transatlantic routes. It is expected that the study will assess the effectiveness of PCR tests, LAMP and Lateral Flow Antigen devices, where used on each airline’s trial routes. Some of the trials will make use of Collinson and Swissport’s testing facilities in Heathrow’s Terminal 2 and Terminal 5, which were launched earlier this year. All participants will need to abide by the Government guidelines at the time of travel, such as the requirement that passengers arriving at Heathrow must self-isolate for 14 days or, from 15th December, for five days at which point a negative test result would release them from quarantine.

The effect that the lack of travel, particularly on trans Atlantic routes, is having was seen when recently it was announced that Heathrow had been over-taken by Paris Charles de Gaulle as the busiest airport in Europe. The UK used to be a prime hub for US arrivals. With the government now planning to ban most duty-free and tax-free purchases at UK airports after Brexit, things are not looking good.

North America is one of the few markets with which the UK has a trade surplus with – meaning that the UK exports more than it imports from it – and the USA alone accounts for a fifth of Heathrow’s traffic, with 21 million passengers and £22bn of UK exports travelling from the airport to America in 2019. All of these credentials continue to be seriously impacted by COVID-19, but pre-departure testing as an alternative to any quarantine on arrival could provide a way to reboot these vital links.

Heathrow CEO, John Holland-Kaye, said: “These trials will build on the Government’s initial testing strategy, setting a standard for a safer and more comprehensive approach to passenger testing, that we hope will accelerate the return to travel as we once knew it. With Brexit imminent, we need to urgently find the most effective way to restore the UK’s trading network and facilitate safe global travel, keeping Britain competitive as it leaves the EU.   

British Airways’ CEO, Sean Doyle, said:  “After the welcome news last week that the Government is reducing quarantine for travellers to five days, British Airways is pleased to be working closely with the team at Heathrow on trials between the US and London which will seek to demonstrate that a robust pre-departure testing regime will help fully re-open the skies and eliminate the need for quarantine. We stand with our colleagues at Heathrow and other UK airlines to ensure that together we do all we can to get Britain and the economy moving again.”  

The current trials in operation are: 

  • British Airways/ American Airlines /oneworld: Passengers booked on flights that are part of the trial (departing Dallas/Fort Worth, New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and Los Angeles Airport) have the option to take a first RT-PCR test 72 hours before their flight, a LAMP test on arrival at Heathrow followed by a further RT-PCR test 72 hours after arrival. The first route was launched on 25th November. British Airways will also introduce trials on its flight from Miami from 9th December.
  • United: Passengers and crew on certain flights from Newark Liberty International Airport to Heathrow are required to take rapid Abbott ID now tests (a molecular rapid test) at the airport on departure. Launched on 16th November until 11th December.
  • Virgin Atlantic: Passengers on selected flights from Heathrow to Barbados, and onwards to Antigua and Grenada are requested to take a free ‘lateral flow’ antigen test at the airport before they fly (in addition to existing entry requirements of an RT-PCR test for Barbados, Antigua and Grenada). To launch from December 9th.

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