Airlines and Airports Hope to Encourage Travel With Testing

As carriers report dismal earnings, their pandemic response is key with passengers

a woman in a mask on an escalator
Right now, testing protocols differ by airline and costs are being borne by passengers. Getty Images

Left with a patchwork of testing options and domestic quarantines in the face of a public health crisis, travelers have had to ask themselves an odd question: Would they really get a Covid test at the airport salon that also does pedicures?

XpresSpa, which calls itself the world’s largest airport spa company with more than 50 locations in 25 airports, is betting they would. That’s why it started a sister company in April, XpresCheck, which last week began offering travelers a $200 rapid Covid test with results in as little as 15 minutes, available at Newark, JFK and, soon, Boston Logan airports.

Without a government mandate, airlines, airports and businesses like XpresSpa have each started their own Covid testing programs aiming to encourage travel amid the pandemic. It’s needed. This week both Delta and United Airlines announced earnings, losing a combined $15 billion since the onset of the pandemic. In Delta’s case, the airline says it doesn’t expect to break even until the spring of next year.

“We’re talking to all the major airports,” said Doug Satzman, CEO of XpresSpa. “We’ve been operators for 15 years; we’re pretty well established with these groups.” ExpresCheck is in talks with each of the major airlines to offer its services, including bundling a test with airfare, although no deals have been made. 

Conceivably, if an airline could guarantee that a flight was Covid-free, travelers would feel much more comfortable boarding. “It would be great marketing,” said Satzman.

Like the overhaul of airport security following the 9/11 terror attacks, Satzman believes the pandemic may have similar long-lasting impacts. “We’re building or converting our spas into long-term medical facilities. We think this is going to stay,” he said.

Already, American, JetBlue, United and Hawaiian airlines have unveiled pilot testing programs, with JetBlue’s kits being delivered directly to travelers’ homes before their flight. In American and United’s cases, the pilot programs are specific to leisure destinations like Hawaii and Jamaica that mandate a 14-day quarantine required, lifted only if a traveler can show a negative test. United’s pilot testing program begins today for passengers leaving from San Francisco to Hawaii. It’ll serve as a “blueprint” for future destinations.

One constant: At all of the airlines, customers are stuck with the bill, which can be as high as $250 for a rapid test with United.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian said the airline is “laying the tracks” to implement a similar testing program, but wouldn’t provide a timeline, pointing to recent global outbreaks.

“When you try to put a timeline on it, one of the big wildcards is how the virus is doing, both here in the U.S. as well as in other countries, because the goal in all of this is to eliminate the need to quarantine when you get to your destination,” Bastian said. “Timing has more to do with the state of the virus and the medical containment of it than it does any specific strategy.”

Even without the tests, if every passenger is seated and wearing a mask, the risk of Covid-19 exposure is “virtually nonexistent,” according to the Department of Defense.

United was the first to get this done, and we’re pushing to do more of that to open up international borders. We’re going to need testing to make that happen, and I think that will expand and we’ll look back on today and say starting testing was an important milestone,” United CEO Scott Kirby said in an investors call today. The airline’s executives anticipate that testing will be widely available by next spring, and that governments “around the world will adopt consistent measures to reduce or eliminate quarantines” if travelers can show a negative test.

@RyanBarwick Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.