After lagging behind much of the world for months, U.S. airports and airlines now appear poised to ramp up on-site Covid-19 testing, a step they say is key to reopening travel markets during the pandemic.
Until the final week of September, only Alaska's Anchorage Airport along with Newark and New York JFK offered any on-site Covid-19 testing for passengers, according to industry sources. And even the testing offered at those New York metro-area airports was limited to 500 per day at JFK and approximately 400 per day at Newark.
Meanwhile, airports in London; Istanbul; Hong Kong; Singapore; Bangalore, India; and beyond have Covid-19 testing capabilities. At Frankfurt Airport, for example, a station run by Lufthansa is capable of administering 20,000 tests per day.
Now, the tide has begun to turn in the U.S. On Oct. 1, Tampa was set to become the first U.S. airport to make Covid-19 tests available to all ticketed passengers. For now, the program is only a 31-day pilot. But during October, Tampa passengers will be able to get either a rapid antigen test for $57 or the more accurate, but slower result, polymerase chain reaction test for $125.
Tampa will soon be joined by Miami, which plans to make rapid testing available to all passengers by November, airport spokesman Greg Chin said.
Tampa Airport CEO Joe Lopano at a press conference announcing the airport’s rapid Covid-19 testing pilot, which is taking place through October. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Tampa International Airport
Airlines are also entering the arena. On Sept. 24, United announced that beginning Oct. 15, it will offer rapid Covid-19 testing at San Francisco Airport for passengers departing to Hawaii. Tests will cost $250, with results delivered within 15 minutes.
The program's launch will coincide with the beginning of loosened travel regulations in Hawaii. Starting that day, Hawaii visitors will be able to avoid a 14-day quarantine by providing confirmation of a negative Covid test administered within 72 hours of departure.
American has announced a similar rapid airport testing program for Hawaii passengers, also starting Oct. 15, out of its Dallas hub.
In a development that could be even more significant, American said on Sept. 29 that it will collaborate with Caribbean governments on pretravel Covid-19 testing programs at Miami Airport.
The first program will be a pilot, beginning this month for Jamaican residents headed home. If a passenger tests negative, Jamaica's 14-day quarantine-in-place requirement for residents will be waived. American said its objective is to open the testing to all Miami passengers flying to Jamaica.
The partnership will be the first of its kind between a U.S. airline and a foreign government.
American also expects to launch a similar program in cooperation with the Bahamas, and it said it is in talks with the Caribbean Community of 20 nations.
If successful, programs such as these could serve as templates for a broader expansion of testing partnerships, facilitating travel to other countries and regions that are allowing entry without quarantine, but only when travelers provide proof of a recent negative Covid-19 test.
More broadly, the travel lobby sees coordinated testing as a replacement for quarantines and border closures. In a letter last month, 18 travel trade organizations called for the U.S. government to work toward the establishment of globally accepted protocols for Covid-19 testing for international air travel.
The company says it is the first in the hotel space to offer such a program.
Still, even as testing begins to ramp up at U.S. airports, industry insiders say that regulatory complexities make establishing such programs a challenge.
"It would be helpful if there was federal guidance on safety protocols and standards," said Doug Satzman, CEO of XpresCheck, which runs the programs at Newark and JFK. "In the absence of national standards, you have the states doing the best they can to come up with policies. That creates a wide range of variables for airlines and companies like us."
Separate regulations from foreign governments add to the complexities, Satzman said.
One significant hurdle to quick Covid-19 testing implementation can be airport procurement rules.
Miami Airport's Chin said that facility has been challenged by the lengthy public bidding process that would have been required to select a vendor. Miami will get around that issue by using an existing concessionaire.
In San Francisco, United's testing partner, GoHealth, is able to operate under the license of its partner Dignity Health St. Mary's, which already has a clinic at the airport, said GoHealth CEO Todd Latz.
Similarly, XpresCheck is run by the owners of XpresSpa, which currently has facilities that are shuttered at 20 U.S. airports. Satzman hopes to repurpose space in some of those airports for XpresCheck, where it would operate under existing concession contracts.
Logistics are another complication for testing programs. Airports and airlines must have the testing capacity as well as the necessary number of doctors and nurses to administer enough tests quickly.
Further, noted Latz, managing capacity is especially complicated when rapid tests are given in an airport environment, where demand surges and flattens based upon flight schedules. GoHealth, he said, has to be confident when it schedules appointments in San Francisco that there won't be backups, so that passengers can make their flights.
Still, Satzman said, these and other problems will be solved.
"Testing is absolutely the path to enabling travel again," he said.