Interview with United Airlines’ Aaron McMillan: Will In-Airport Covid-19 Testing Jumpstart Travel?

By Jonathan Spira on 25 September 2020
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The relatively few people who wish to travel today face a constantly shifting maze of rules and regulations when it comes to restrictions on crossing state and international borders.

To combat the spread of the coronavirus and entice people to return to travel amidst a coronavirus pandemic induced travel slump, governments and companies in the travel industry alike have floated numerous ideas to facilitate entry.

In many respects, it appears that everyone is throwing ideas out and seeing if they stick.  This includes the now somewhat discredited body temperature scans, the idea of “immunity” passports, and of course testing for the virus immediately prior to travel.

The problem is that scientists are still uncertain as to how long if at all coronavirus antibodies will protect an individual and that virus testing is only a snapshot in time.

Antibody testing reports whether the person has been infected with the virus at some point in the past and is no guarantee of future immunity or that the person will not infect others after being exposed to a new source of the infection, and having a negative virus test 72 hours prior to a flight is wishful thinking in that the moment an individual who had tested negative comes into contact with someone who has the virus, all bets are off.

Still, testing is in vogue. Iceland was a pioneer in offering free testing upon arrival but quickly found that the virus was entering the country despite the tests.  Hong Kong Airport, followed by Vienna Airport, was the first airport to offer virus testing and Emirates was the first airline to require a negative coronavirus test to board a plane.

This week, United Airlines announced plans to offer rapid testing at San Francisco International Airport for travelers headed to Hawaii, which will accept a negative Covid-19 test in lieu of a 14-day quarantine period upon arrival.

We sat down with Aaron McMillan, the airline’s managing director of operations and support. He has spent almost 22 years at the airline and knows the ins and outs of how well such things might work.

Jonathan Spira: Let’s tackle the basics first. Will insurance cover the cost of a $250 coronavirus test that is solely for the purpose of travel?

Aaron McMillan: It might not, actually, because of the purpose of the test, but this is of course the decision of the insurer and may depend on the terms of the insured’s policy and any governmental mandates to cover all testing.

JS: The program makes a lot of sense to me if your destination requires a negative test. Otherwise, however, no one’s going to volunteer to be tested or pay the cost out of pocket.

AM: Certainly Hawaii has taken this step as it needs to reopen its economy. The state is maintaining its 14-day quarantine period, of course, but admitting people who take the test for vacation or business who have a negative result. 

JS: What about states such as New York, which currently requires visitors from 35 U.S. territories and states to quarantine for 14 days but does not offer an exemption from this with a negative test result.

AM: It’s still a bit murky elsewhere in the country with respect to what we might see evolve in other jurisdictions. There is a large patchwork of restrictions and requirements and these vary even within the same state sometimes. Of course, on the international front, some countries already require a negative test result for entry and sometimes to waive a quarantine period.

JS: What about countries that aren’t at all open to visitors.

AM: We see the possibility of these countries taking steps to put similar requirements in place.

JS: Let’s look at vaccinations, which may be widely available in the United States by next April, according to Dr. Fauci, who needs no introduction.

AM: I think it’s again still really early, but we believe that what countries have in place today with testing requirements will evolve into showing proof of vaccination at some point for proof of entry. We see this as something that would sustain itself for some time and as an opportunity to provide a record when they need to present this to government authorities, a vaccination record over a longer period of time, perhaps a digital health passport.

JS: What about what Apple offers in the iPhone, a digital health app that not only tracks health-related data but can store vital records.  You don’t need to reinvent what’s already there or compete with Apple, for example.

AM: I don’t think that we would compete with Apple. For us it would be a partnership of sorts with, perhaps Apple or another provider. We’re having discussions with different entities today about options that might exist. There are companies out there that are thinking about these pieces of the puzzle.

JS: How will all this work for United from an operational standpoint?

AM: From an operational standpoint, I know it’s hard for our own employees to adjudicate some of these records. Customer service agents are left to determine if a passenger can board the plane and travel to a given destination.

JS: Clearly, you need something like Timatic, but for coronavirus-related governmental rules and regulations. [Editor’s note: Timatic is a service used by airlines and travel agents to verify passengers travel document requirements for their destination and any transit points.]

AM: Yes, we do.

JS: Wrapping up, since the hour is up: Final thoughts?

AM: Thank you, yes. Because the testing landscape is so complex, we feel that, if we could step in and help provide the right test at the right time, we could get people back on board [our aircraft] and get them to their destinations safely.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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