(CNN) – A transatlantic passenger flight that feels safe even at Covid-19 age – United Airlines Flight 14 from Newark, which landed at Heathrow Airport early Tuesday, appeared to be just that.
The flight is the first in the airline’s four-week test, which tests passengers and crew before boarding. This gives them peace of mind that – at least at the time of launch – nobody has the virus.
United wants to show that proper onboard testing can reopen transatlantic travel, reducing or eliminating the need for quarantine and reinvigorating the travel industry.
How does it work? I was one of 36 passengers on the first night flight to Heathrow to witness the process. This is what happened:
Screening for the virus – an Abbott ID Now Covid-19 rapid test run by Premise Health – took place immediately after check-in.
You go through security, go to the gate and testing facility, which is located in the Newark United Club. You walk in, give your name, answer basic medical questions, and a nurse does a nasal swab.
It’s not intrusive at all. The doctor in charge explained to me that the swab does not have to go beyond the nasal passages to detect Covid. The whole thing takes about 15 minutes, then the results are printed out and given to you.
Fast and easy
Not many people are currently traveling between the US and the UK so the flight was pretty empty.
Richard Quest / CNN
While it was a quick and easy process on Monday night, it occurred to me that the center could be very busy with pre-flight testing becoming the norm, with three, four or five full flights to Europe departing a day.
But United was prepared and asked us to arrive a few hours early to have time for tests. You sign up for your 15 minute window in advance so you can easily integrate it into the travel time.
The only soul that hasn’t been tested? An assistance dog that accompanied a passenger and behaved very well.
United will run the test on three flights a week across the Atlantic. She hopes this will help restore air links between London and New York, which are usually one of the busiest long haul international routes in the world.
At the moment there are only a few passengers. Anyone coming to the UK from America must be quarantined for two weeks. The restrictions on the return journey are even stricter, making transatlantic travel, whether for business or pleasure, almost impossible at the moment.
Travelers who come to the UK from the USA and vice versa do not currently have to present a negative Covid test. Many in the travel industry say this is a missed opportunity to create a safe corridor.
On board the United Boeing 767-300ER, which is making the first Covid test flight, most of the passengers tell me that they are traveling to see their family.
One person tested positive for Covid-19 during the screening. The person was refused entry and was taken to an isolation room.
I don’t think United expected this, but the airline has been prepared and the protocol has been followed. Appropriate procedures for the care and wellbeing of individuals and the protection of other passengers have been put in place.
The airline believes this shows that pre-departure testing will result in a safe flight.
United Airlines tests passengers for Covid before embarking on transatlantic flights.
Courtesy United Airlines
It is certainly comforting to be on an airplane that has everyone tested. Of course, we know this isn’t a guarantee, but at the time we got in, they were all Covid-free.
If a passenger switches to Covid-positive in-flight, there are still face masks, distancing and the aircraft’s HEPA filters in place to limit the chances of spread.
Scott Kirby, United Airlines CEO, says the chances are slim a person will test negative for Covid in Newark, fly across the Atlantic, and then test positive at Heathrow – passing the virus on in the process -.
“Because of the environment on a cruise ship – it stretches entirely across the cruise ship – it’s not like that when you’re flying internationally on an airplane,” says Kirby.
Everyone on the plane was tested for Covid.
Richard Quest / CNN
United is also continuing the safety procedures put in place since the pandemic – mandatory masks, social distancing. I was in business class and when we were served food everything was packed and designed so that no one had touched it.
When I arrive at Heathrow I am shocked at how incredibly quiet it is. It’s a vivid reminder of how the second wave of Covid-19 in Europe and the subsequent lockdowns had a devastating impact on the travel industry.
If the experiment proves successful, United’s method must be the future of travel. A negative Covid test before departure, supplemented by a short quarantine and a final test to give the all-clear, would make a big difference.
A vaccine is coming, but it won’t be widely available until mid to late 2021. Until then, a kind of test regime must be introduced for countries without corridors.
This seems like the only way forward. It’s about giving passengers – and governments – more confidence to start traveling again.
Richard Quest reported aboard United Airlines Flight 14 with Francesca Street contributing from London