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United to Start COVID-19 Testing for Some Flights

Optional rapid tests for passengers flying to Hawaii may become available to more travelers

United Airlines planes at San Francisco International Airport

Rafael Ben-Ari / Alamy Stock Photo

San Francisco International Airport

En español | United Airlines will begin offering optional rapid COVID-19 tests to passengers flying from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Honolulu, Maui and Kona in Hawaii, starting on Oct. 15. Travelers who want to be tested can do so on the day of their flight, and the results will be available within 15 minutes. They can also purchase a mail-in test, providing their sample within 72 hours of their trip.

Rapid tests are $250; mail-in tests are $80. If the test is positive, the traveler won't be allowed to enter the terminal or to fly.

United's pilot testing program will be implemented in partnership with Hawaii, which on Oct. 15 will begin allowing travelers to use negative COVID-19 tests as an alternative to a mandatory two-week quarantine. Currently all visitors to the state are required to spend two weeks self-isolating, regardless of test results. Travelers also need to register online by filling out a mandatory Safe Travels form, then check in online every day to confirm their health and that they remain in quarantine, with violators subject to up to a $5,000 fine and/or a year imprisonment.

The regulations and traveler caution during the outbreak have resulted in a tourism standstill in the state (in July only 22,562 visitors flew to Hawaii, a nearly 98 percent drop from July 2019).

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United plans to expand the testing program to include flights to and from other airports. In the announcement, United's chief customer officer Toby Enqvist said, “We'll look to quickly expand customer testing to other destinations and U.S. airports later this year.”

Customers will be sent a link to an online site where they can schedule their rapid COVID-19 test in advance (the SFO testing site, run by GoHealth Urgent Care, is located in the international terminal, and open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.). For the mail-in tests, administered by the health technology company Color, United will email customers “an invitation to purchase” a self-collection kit — including “a plastic collection tube, a noninvasive nasal swab and instructions on how to properly collect a specimen” — “at least 10 days ahead of their departure, collect their own samples at home 72 hours prior to their departure and return their test via overnight mail or to a drop box at SFO.” Color will email or text passengers their results within 24 to 48 hours.

The move may help distinguish United in a time when the industry is in crisis, with the near-total loss of business travelers and a plunge in leisure travelers. The airline lost $1.63 billion during the second quarter — an average of $40 million a day, compared with a $1 billion profit in the same period last year.

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