UK urged to open up transatlantic corridors as ‘Covid-free’ flight arrives

Airlines have piled more pressure on the UK government to open up transatlantic air corridors after the first confirmed “Covid-free flight” arrived at Heathrow and the launch of a pre-departure testing trial by British Airways.

A United Airlines flight from Newark arrived at London Heathrow on Tuesday morning having tested all of the passengers onboard to certify them free from coronavirus before departure.

About 40 passengers were cleared to travel, but one was refused after testing positive. The US carrier plans to operate 11 more Newark-Heathrow flights over the coming weeks, where every traveller agrees to be tested and cleared before takeoff.

Meanwhile, BA will give volunteer passengers a series of free tests before and after departure on a number of US-UK routes, to demonstrate that flying is safe and that testing could replace quarantine.

While the government has signalled a “test-and-release” scheme will soon be introduced to cut the isolation period for international arrivals, BA has urged it to scrap quarantine in favour of pre-departure testing.

The chief executive, Sean Doyle, said that the value of transatlantic trade to the UK was in excess of £200bn, and travel was “a critical enabler” of trade and the economy. He said: “We know we can’t get the economy moving with a 14-day quarantine and research suggests that a seven-day period won’t cut it either.

“The vaccine is great news but when it has a material effect on travel isn’t clear, so we need short-term solutions.”

The BA trial, in conjunction with American Airlines, will offer free Covid-19 tests to customers travelling on selected flights from Dallas, New York and LA from 25 November. Passengers will take a PCR test at home 72-hours before departure, watched remotely by medical professionals, and a second test will be carried out at Heathrow on landing. A third test will be taken via a saliva sample three days later, whose results BA hopes will demonstrate that only the first two tests would be necessary to identify infected travellers.

Doyle said other countries such as Germany were adopting testing instead of quarantine, adding: “People want to travel but our skies remain all but closed and the UK is being left behind.”

Although the airlines are planning to share their results with relevant authorities, it is being conducted without any government involvement and travellers will still have to quarantine as usual.

Currently all non-essential travel from the UK is suspended under lockdown rules due to end on 2 December.

Meanwhile, the UK has signed a deal with the US ensuring flights can continue between the countries at the end of the Brexit transition period. Shapps signed the air services agreement, which replicates the current EU-US open skies deal allowing airlines to operate freely.

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