Now airlines, always jockeying to be first out of the gate with fresh innovation, are rolling out rapid Covid-19 tests to get travelers back in the air. United, JetBlue and American Airlines have each announced new testing programs within the last week, aiming to give travelers and local tourism officials a sense of confidence—in addition to economic boosts for themselves—before a vaccine becomes available.
But the tests aren’t a cure-all. For one, they’re expensive. And two of the three airlines have only announced pilot programs, which are the first stage of trials, so far.
Still, whether for leisure or business flyers, it isn’t hard to see how rapid tests could be a game changer for an industry that’s been crippled by the public health crisis.
United was the first airline to announce its own rapid test pilot program, available to travelers between Hawaii and San Francisco starting Oct. 15. For $250, customers that opt for the test will get their results within 15 minutes after taking it at the airport. Negative test results would allow a traveler to skip Hawaii’s strict 14-day mandatory quarantine. There’s also an $80 at-home test available, though it has yet to be approved by Hawaiian officials.
Within days, JetBlue announced a similar at-home testing partnership, giving its travelers their results within 72 hours, for $143.
“We continue to hear from health officials that testing is incredibly important in the fight against the coronavirus, and we want to make sure our customers have options for testing, especially prior to travel,” said Joanna Geraghty, JetBlue president and CEO, in a statement. “As more and more regions reopen, many are requiring test results to enter. Now with easier testing options, those safety requirements may not be a deterrent for travel, but rather provide greater public health and peace of mind with little inconvenience.”
American Airlines is the latest to announce its pilot program, launching next month, specifically aimed at its international markets. It will first be made available to Jamaican residents flying to Miami before eventually allowing tests for all travelers between the two airports. The pilot program will eventually expand beyond Caribbean markets to flights between Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, and Hawaii if the pilot proves successful. The at-home testing option is $129, and the airline declined to say how much a test at the airport would cost.
Internationally, Lufthansa is providing rapid tests to its first-class and business travelers.
While the price of tests is expected to fall as travel demand returns, both American and United earned bad headlines after letting passengers book middle seats. Delta and Southwest, on the other hand, are currently committed to keeping middle seats open until Jan. 6, 2021 and Nov. 30, respectively.
However, JetBlue is no longer guaranteeing that middle seats will be blocked during the holiday travel season, as first pointed out by The Points Guy. These three airlines are also expected to be take loans from the treasury department as part of stimulus packages announced earlier in the year.
So, are these announcements a sign of innovation or a push to comfort travelers? Experts say it might be both.
“You could argue that American and United are sensing some urgency in their position versus their competitors,” said Stephen Trent, a financial analyst who covers the airline industry. “I think it is marginally positive.”
In the same way pilots avoid turbulence, if an increase in tests makes travelers more comfortable, it doesn’t hurt the airlines to announce these programs with the hopes of earning some good will and spurring travel. But given restrictions like price and general wariness of travel to start with, it’s still unclear though how many will take them up on the offer.