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With New Rapid Tests, United Sets Course for Covid-Free Flights Between New York and London

The program could soon become industry standard.

United Airlines FG/Bauergriffin.com/MEGA

It’s common for the prospect of flying to rattle a few nerves, but even the most aviation-friendly among us are rightfully concerned about taking off during a pandemic. Sitting in close quarters for extended periods is, ugh, less than comforting under the circumstances. But United Airlines is launching the first official Covid-free flights from New York to London to make Transatlantic transit a little more worry-free.

On Tuesday, Nov. 17, a United airplane will land at London’s Heathrow Airport from Newark as the first step in a month-long program designed to meaningfully reopen that flight path once again. To ensure that the flight is indeed Covid-free, all crew members and passengers will be tested for the coronavirus before embarking, and only those who test negative will be permitted to fly.

“We believe the ability to provide fast, same-day Covid-19 testing will play a vital role in safely reopening travel around the world and navigating quarantines and travel restrictions, particularly to key international destinations like London,” said Toby Enqvist, chief customer officer for United, in a statement.

The move could have a serious impact on two fronts: as a pilot program with industry-wide implications if proven successful and as a means of increasing overall business. Though airlines have grown increasingly stringent in their travel policies with many banning those refusing to wear masks, rapid testing immediately before takeoff is an additional step that goes much further in preventing the spread of disease. In September, the CDC estimated that 11,000 people were exposed to Covid-19 during flights, a number which has likely increased since.

In terms of economic value, the shift could do much to move the needle on the faltering economies. An aviation industry company estimated that the 85 percent planned decrease in flight capacity between the U.S. and the U.K. since October will cost the U.K. £11 billion in 2020, equivalent to $42 million per day.

Prior to the pandemic outbreak, United operated six daily flights between New York-Newark and London, offering the most frequency among U.S. carriers as well as the most business class and premium economy seats. If all goes well with the new protocols, they could become standard practice until the pandemic comes to a close.

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