United Airlines operated the pioneering Newark-Heathrow flight, with all 37 booked passengers agreeing to tests at the New Jersey airport. One tested positive and was denied boarding; the remainder flew across the Atlantic. Any United travellers who do not wish to submit to the test can switch to other departures.
BA and its US partner, American Airlines, have the same aim as United: to demonstrate that pre-flight testing for coronavirus is a sophisticated and viable alternative to the current blunt tool of two weeks in self-isolation on arrival.
But their joint project takes a different approach, with passengers invited rather than mandated to take tests before travel. They will be offered the chance to undergo a sequence of three tests, starting with PCR test 72 hours ahead of the flight.
“Customers will self-collect a nasal sample, under the supervision of medical professionals via a virtual visit,” says BA. ”If a customer tests positive, they should reschedule or cancel their travel.”
On touchdown at Heathrow, passengers will undergo a quicker, and less accurate, LAMP test at the existing Collinson testing facility at Terminal 5.
A third saliva-based test will be posted out to participating travellers.
“The three-test approach aims to validate a customer’s negative status for Covid-19 throughout the travel journey and will provide insight into the most effective and practical testing interval,” say the airline partners.
“The third test is intended to further confirm the results of the first two tests, to demonstrate that one or two tests will be sufficient to allow travel to safely restart.”
The trial starts on 25 November and involves two Heathrow-bound British Airways flights: BA 114 from New York JFK and BA268 from Los Angeles.
Passengers on American Airlines flight AA50 from Dallas-Fort Worth will also be invited to take part, and later the research will be expanded to flight AA106 from JFK to Heathrow.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the carriers operated up to 111 flights a week from New York to London; they currently operate 14.
Sean Doyle, chief executive of British Airways, said: “We know people want to travel but our skies remain all-but-closed and the UK is being left behind.
“Major economies like Germany are adopting testing to replace quarantine.
“We need the UK government to introduce a system that allows travellers to take reliable, affordable tests before departure.
“We are confident this approach would open routes, stimulate economies and get people travelling with confidence.”
Speaking to The Independent, the BA boss said: “If we’re going to get the economy humming again, we’ve got to get aviation humming again.”
Arrivals who are ending their journeys in the UK will still need to to self-isolate for 14 days even if they have tested negative at each stage.