When It Matters, Testing For Travel Is Easy. So Why Won’t Airlines Test Their Own Crew?

Testing (almost) everyone will keep some people with the virus from coming into the country, some of whom would have spread it further. But travelers aren’t a primary driver of Covid-19 in the U.S. presently.

There is certainly a concern over mutated strains of the virus which are more prevalent elsewhere, but bans on some non-resident travelers entering the U.S. who have recently been to some of those destinations won’t prevent those strains from coming into the country (and genomic surveillance in the U.S. is so weak we don’t have much sense of what is here and what isn’t in any case).

Still, if there’s some benefit to testing then it’s strange to,

  1. Accept rapid antigen tests, yet

  2. Exempt airline crew from testing

Antigen tests are great at revealing current infectiousness, but aren’t as good at catching early bits of virus (someone may have been infected but not yet test positive). They can deliver results quickly (less than half an hour) which makes them easier to work with than PCR tests.

In fact Hyatt has announced that all of their resorts across Latin America (including the Caribbean, Mexico, Costa Rica, and South America) now offer complimentary testing (2 tests per room, minimum length of stay on property may apply to qualify). Anyone delayed by testing (a positive test, a test that ages out of eligibility due to flight disruptions) can take advantage of a Travel Delay Rate for up to 50% off room and 30% off food and beverage.

That’s great adaptation to the current reality, born out of desperation to win business from Americans in the face of new travel requirements. And it’s a reason crew exemptions are concerning, airlines should be able to adapt too.

In fact I’m told that United Airlines is scheduling U.K.-based crew to work London – Newark – Mumbai – Newark – London, London – Chicago – Delhi – Chicago – London, and London – Washington DC – London. This is roughly 80 UK-based crew entering the US every day exempt from the CDC’s new testing requirement, with the UK one of the epicenters of a new SARS-CoV-2 mutation of concern.

I’ve reached out to United to ask for their take on the advisability of bringing U.K. crews into the U.S. without testing when the CDC testing requirement has been spurred by concerns driven by the U.K. B.1.1.7 and other new variants of the virus. They haven’t responded but will update if that changes.

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. My cynical side is that they want the crews working and don’t want to know if they are infected. Doesn’t make sense since you wouldn’t think having enough crews is a problem but nothing else makes any more sense.

    Our company has the “you need a doctor’s note” to return to work rule but it isn’t enforced. I don’t know of any doctor that would sign such a note.

    And requiring negative tests after having covid is also pointless since you can test positive for a long time after no longer being contagious. My GF was still testing positive 5 weeks after first symptoms and it wasn’t until around week 6 she finally tested negative (and who knows, that could have been a faulty test).

  2. Antigen tests continue to get better and cheaper and not to mention are way faster, so I have less of an issue with that. The reality is they should have been deployed much early here in the states if it meant we had more access to cheap, quick tests to try to tamp down the community spread of the disease. It’s mind boggling how few tests in general have been given out.

    On the crew side, the airline requirements should be crews should test before they leave their home country because it is the right thing to do. Yeah that crazy UA route maybe won’t work too well but for the most part crews would be exempt anyways on most of these if they had a COVID test before they leave as they will fall w/in the 72-hour rule on the return. I think if you had airline crews require testing while abroad no one would fly as they don’t want to risk getting stuck (see what has happened with the turnarounds in China the crews now avoid).

  3. One major reason is related to scheduling. Pilot contracts for example specify what time a pilot must report for work. That’s usually 45 min or 1 hour. The airline can’t modify that without union consent and it isn’t likely to get it. Even the rapid tests can take an hour to get results back which could mean delaying flights while they wait on results. Then what do you do when right at departure time in an international city one crew member tests positive. Your going to end up cancelling because you don’t have reserves there and that can get very expensive.

    Now consider that the number of crew who have had this has been pretty small. So when you look at the benefits of testing vs the problems it can and will create it’s not worth doing.

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