United Introduces At-Airport Covid Testing For San Francisco-Hawaii Flights

Yesterday I wrote about how rapid testing at scale could allow return to normal life. Many jurisdictions only accept lab-confirmed PCR tests, but those are highly limited in volume and results can take time to turn around.

While lab-confirmed tests may be the most accurate, processing millions of tests that are merely highly accurate is a better solution. It’s almost useless to learn that a subset of people who can be tested did or didn’t have the virus several days in the past, while learning the probable results of most people every day could limit spread of the virus to near-zero.

There are two new important testing developments in travel today, both United Airlines announcement. United is partnering to provide Covid testing for its San Francisco – Hawaii flights. They’re providing testing, and they’ve worked with Hawaii to accept an Abbott rapid test rather than just a PCR test.

  • Hawaii will allow visitors with a negative Covid test to avoid 14 day quarantine on arrival starting October 15 and United is launching a testing program to coincide with this.

  • United will offer a 15 minute Abbott ID NOW test, provided by GoHealth Urgent Care, to passengers flying San Francisco – Hawaii. ($250)

  • They will also offer a mail-in test that they recommend requesting 10 days prior to trip and providing sample 72 hours ahead of time. ($80)

    United will email customers traveling from San Francisco to Hawaii an invitation to purchase their physician-ordered Color self-collection kit 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 then processes those tests at their local, CLIA-certified COVID-19 testing laboratory and returns results via text and/or email within 24-48 hours. Color’s self-collection kit includes a plastic collection tube, a non-invasive nasal swab and instructions on how to properly collect a specimen.


United Airlines Onsite Testing at SFO, Credit: United Airlines

United is the first major U.S. airline to offer Covid testing. And they’ve worked with Hawaii officials so that they will accept the rapid 15 minute test and not just a PCR test.

Customers who want to confirm their ability to travel prior to arrival at the airport can take a traditional test, and the airline suggests that turnaround can be done in time though of course if it isn’t they still have the 15 minute testing on arrival option.

The airline plans to expand testing to other airports and for travel to other destinations “later this year.”

The combination of self-collected testing with results in 72 hours (meeting the requirements of most destinations) and convincing Hawaii to accept a rapid test is a real advance in bringing travel back to normal. A next step would be requiring passengers to have taken one test or the other to fly, and returning a negative result, because that would give significant confidence to passengers to return to travel.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @Gary – Amazing that United is able to make a deal with the Hawaiian Government that Hawaiian Air (or American Air) can’t also make? (to accept Abbott rapid 15 minute test and not just PCR test). Passenger pays ($250)? Or ($80) for the 10 days prior mail-in test?

  2. ” And they’ve worked with Hawaii officials so that they will accept the rapid 15 minute test and not just a PCR test.”

    The Abbott ID-Now test that is being used here IS a PCR test.

    Facts. Not hard to do.

  3. If UA could get the French Polynesian government to accept this test for their SFO-PPT route that would help a lot of us with plans to go there but not able to get a RT-PCR test within 72 hours before the flight as mandated by Tahiti. I have flights in January and a vacation in French Polynesia that I may have to cancel due to the inability to get a test and results within the 72 hour window as I live in Kansas City. You cannot get your results back fast enough here, no place does this kind if testing.

  4. Once again, you misrepresent the data. Are you shilling for United on this?? The Abbot ID platform is not a good test! Clearly, the people in charge of public health in Hawaii either did not look at all the data or were overruled. Here is some ACTUAL data to back my statements up:

    https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.11.089896v2.
    To whit: from a comparison of 101 samples, “Regardless of method of collection and sample type, Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 had negative results in a third of the samples that tested positive by Cepheid Xpert Xpress when using nasopharyngeal swabs in viral transport media and 45% when using dry nasal swabs.”

    Another study of 524 samples showed this: “Overall agreement was 75% positive agreement (95% confidence interval [95% CI], 67.74%, 80.67%) and 99% negative agreement (95% CI, 97.64%, 99.89%) between IDNCOV and ACOV for all specimens tested. ”
    https://jcm.asm.org/content/58/8/e00798-20

    Finally, yet another study of 108 patients reinforced the above: “We found that Xpert Xpress had the lowest limit of detection (100% detection at 100 copies/ml), followed by ePlex (100% detection at 1,000 copies/ml), and ID NOW (20,000 copies/ml). Xpert Xpress also had highest positive percent agreement (PPA) compared to our reference standard (98.3%) followed by ePlex (91.4%) and ID NOW (87.7%). All three assays showed 100% negative percent agreement (NPA). In the workflow analysis, ID NOW produced the lowest time to result per specimen (∼17 min) compared to Xpert Xpress (∼46 min) and ePlex (∼1.5 h), but what ID NOW gained in rapid results, it lost in analytical and clinical performance.”
    https://jcm.asm.org/content/58/8/e00783-20

    Abbot was of course not happy with this so they paid… erm.. sponsored their own studies. Even those showed that they missed between 15 and 5% of positive cases compared to PCR (sensitivity of 85.7-95% and specificity of 99%).

    I know this isn’t a science blog, but your coverage of this is borderline irresponsible.

  5. Why hasn’t the federal government started doing this in every airport instead of dumb airline bailouts ???!! One word: Trump

  6. Why hasn’t the federal government started doing this in every airport instead of dumb airline bailouts ??? !! One word: Pelosi

  7. Feds are not doing these test at the airports because they are not dumb and because it would be complete waste of money. Airline travel is a very minor channel of Covid-19 spread. Also, if you google “Covid-19 Testing of Asymptomatic Individuals – No Benefit but Consequential False Sense Security” you read that: “Currently, confirmation of SARS-CoV-2 infection depends on use of the highly specific real time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) analysis to detect viral genetic material in either nasal swab or bronchioalveolar lavage sample. A positive test result indicates the individual had contact with the SARS-CoV-2 viral genome protein in the previous 21 days. However, the presence of viral protein does not inform the likely hood of progressing to COVID-19 disease, disease transmission risk or presence of viral shedding. In contrast up to 40% of a negative PCR test are false.”
    So, if you have symptoms – do not travel and self-isolate.

  8. Apparently Hawaii is now requiring NAAT, not a PCR test according to the tourism website (effective Oct 15). Does the UA test comply with Hawaii’s new announcement?

  9. @CkTraveler:

    PCR is the most common form of NAAT.

    Rapid antigen tests are not NAAT, nor are they PCR.

    United is using Abbott ID-NOW which is a PCR. It is is NAAT.

    It’s really not hard to understand and post the facts about test types.

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