Yesterday United Airlines announced it would begin offering rapid COVID-19 testing at San Francisco Airport for passengers traveling to Hawaii. Results take around 15 minutes. This is just one airport, for flights on one airline to one destination – and yet it may just be a watershed moment for travel in the era of COVID.

Why? Because United has worked with Hawaiian authorities to establish a testing protocol that will be available to all passengers in order to travel freely and skip quarantine on arrival. If it works as planned and Hawaii can avoid a surge in infections, it will provide a blueprint for every other airport, airline and government to follow.

United’s test offering is due to go live October 15, the same day Hawaii will begin allow travelers to enter without a 14-day quarantine provided they bring along a negative test.

The potential to revolutionize pandemic travel

Meanwhile, Lufthansa is also reportedly planning to launch rapid antigen tests for its passengers – and is even looking at offering testing in North America to help revive transatlantic travel. Lufthansa has been talking about establishing testing protocols on certain air corridors for weeks – as have other airlines. Most are waiting on the relevant authorities to buy in to their ideas and make things a reality.

I’ve covered the importance of international cooperation around officially sanctioned, easy-to-access testing before. A functioning rapid testing system like United’s deployed worldwide would mean that if someone really wants or needs to travel to a place, they can do so by proving to a reasonable degree of certainty that they aren’t carrying the virus. And this could apply to business travel as much as tourism – both of which need to be enabled again as soon as possible.

That ability to move when the need strikes (or yes, even just when the desire to get away takes hold) is going to be essential to kickstarting economies, reuniting friends and family and more.

How is this different than current testing protocols?

Some destinations already allow entry if visitors arrive with proof of a negative test, usually taken with in the last 72 hours. However this solution is far better. That’s because:

  • It’s difficult to get a test turned around within 72 hours in many places including the United States. The uncertainty about that turnaround time, alongside uncertainty about making sure the test is approved and the results will be accepted by the destination, adds serious complications to travel booking. Many facing this will simply choose not to bother.
  • Passengers tested three days ago will have had three days in which to potentially pick up the virus. True, it is still possible for a person to test negative within the first days of infection, and tests are not 100% accurate. However testing at time of departure reduces that much more of the risk. And our solutions for dealing with COVID-19 ought to be based on reducing risk as much as possible, not on an unrealistic notion of eliminating risk entirely.

Cost is the next hurdle

The only real problem with the United Airlines setup is that it’s going to cost $250. That’s going to be far too expensive for a typical family going on vacation. However we can hope that as production ramps up, tests get more plentiful and cheaper but still accurate methods of testing continue to emerge, that price can steadily come down. Global adoption of similar testing protocols can only help with that aspect as well.

Stay tuned because the next month or two should prove very interesting as more rapid tests are rolled out in more cities worldwide.