London’s Heathrow Airport is hoping that on-site passenger COVID-19 testing will facilitate an opening of passenger travel between London and New York as early as November.
“I would love to have a New York–London pilot up and running by Thanksgiving. That seems entirely feasible,” Heathrow’s CEO John Holland-Kaye told U.K.-based industry publication Travel Weekly during a webcast on September 27.
On October 20, Heathrow officially launched rapid-result COVID-19 testing facilities in its T2 and T5 terminals following testing trials that started back in August. The facilities are initially being made available to passengers traveling to Hong Kong, where proof of a negative COVID-19 test prior to flight departure is required. The tests being offered are rapid-result Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification (LAMP) and Antigen tests.
The tests cost £80 (US$105) per passenger, and the results are available within one hour.
The airport is analyzing the testing process and sharing its findings with British government officials. The hope is that the testing could ultimately provide a safe alternative to the 14-day quarantine requirement currently in place for travelers arriving in the United Kingdom from numerous countries and territories, including from the United States.
“There is consensus that testing is the answer to getting people flying, that testing before departure is the better way of doing it and that we need a common international standard,” Holland-Kaye told Travel Weekly.
The airport executive said that he has received feedback from the British government indicating that they could begin deliberating on the testing issue sometime in October.
One of the main questions they will be looking into, he said, is how and whether airport testing should factor into the reopening of international travel. A recent study by Johns Hopkins researchers found that testing people for COVID-19 too early in the course of the infection is likely to result in a false negative test, which means that being tested upon arrival could result in a false negative for travelers who were very recently infected.
“We’ve proposed two things: a shorter quarantine on arrival followed by a test after five or seven days for people from high-risk countries, [and] a pilot on the New York–London route with testing before people get on a plane,” Holland-Kaye told Travel Weekly. The latter option is more complicated “because you need mutual recognition of testing between countries.”
In early September, U.K. transport secretary Grant Shapps said the government was looking into a testing plan that would reduce the amount of time people have to self-isolate from 14 days to 7. Failing to self-isolate can now result in a £10,000 (US$12,900) fine.
Holland-Kaye is hopeful that effective and rapid testing will be the key to restarting much-needed international travel. And he isn’t alone. Numerous airlines have begun offering rapid COVID-19 testing options to passengers, including United, American, Lufthansa, Hawaiian and Alaska.
A growing number of airports, too, are incorporating testing capabilities into their operations as the airline industry works to find ways to get more planes and passengers back up into the air sooner rather than later.