In another effort aimed at getting travelers back on planes, United Airlines will begin offering on-the-spot coronavirus testing to some passengers at the airport before they board their flight.
The tests will be offered to United customers going to Hawaii from San Francisco International Airport in a pilot program beginning Oct. 15. The rapid tests, developed by Abbott Laboratories, can provide results in 15 minutes. United customers also will have the option of a self-administered, mail-in test that they would need to submit within 72 hours before their flight.
The airline says it worked alongside the Hawaii government to ensure the test meets state requirements — so travelers who test negative for the coronavirus within 72 hours of their arrival will not be subject to Hawaii's mandatory 14-day quarantine for those coming to the state.
Hawaii's economy is largely dependent on tourism and has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to data from the industry group Airlines for America, carriers are flying 70% fewer flights to and from the Hawaiian islands, and travel into the state is down 94%.
United is the first U.S. airline to offer such on-the-spot, preflight coronavirus testing. If the pilot program is successful, United says it hopes to expand preflight testing to other airports across the country.
"Our new COVID testing program is another way we are helping customers meet their destinations' entry requirements, safely and conveniently," United Chief Customer Officer Toby Enqvist said in a statement. "We'll look to quickly expand customer testing to other destinations and U.S. airports later this year."
The airline notes that the coronavirus testing will complement "state-of-the-art cleaning and safety measures that include a mandatory mask policy, antimicrobial and electrostatic spraying" of airplane cabin interiors, and "hospital-grade HEPA air filtration systems."
Other airlines are working on developing their own coronavirus testing for passengers in hopes that enabling travelers to bypass quarantine requirements would spark an increase in air travel, especially to international destinations.
To try to boost business, airlines and travel trade groups have been calling on the U.S. government to establish a federal coronavirus testing program. They've also been pleading for a federal policy requiring passengers to wear face masks. The Trump administration has refused to implement such a regulation, leaving the U.S. carriers to enforce their own mask policies.
The airlines have also been calling on government officials in the U.S. and the European Union to establish a joint coronavirus testing program to kick-start international air travel, but no such agreement on testing protocols has been reached. Even though the EU reopened borders between nations this summer, it still restricts American travelers because of the stubbornly high coronavirus infection rate in the United States.
The German airline Lufthansa also announced Thursday that it will begin offering on-the-spot coronavirus testing to passengers boarding intercontinental flights in October. The routes on which the testing will be offered hasn't yet been determined, but many will likely be to the United States.