British Airways has announced it will test passengers for COVID-19 in a bid to prove the UK’s quarantine policy should be scrapped.
The airline says it hopes the data will demonstrate that a single test 72 hours before a flight is “robust” enough to mean they will not have to.
Chief executive Sean Doyle has said there have been “very minimal reports” of transmission on commercial flights and insists that air travel is “safe”.
He also claims the UK is being “left behind” as countries such as Germany adopt testing to replace quarantine measures.
Mr Doyle says BA will trial a voluntary testing regime in partnership with American Airlines, involving hundreds of people on selected routes from the US to Heathrow.
Passengers will be tested three days before departure as well as on arrival at the west London airport, and three days later.
They will however still be required to following existing quarantine rules, even if they receive negative results for all three tests.
Those who test positive for the virus will be able to reschedule their travel free of charge.
The trial will begin on 25 November for flights from New York, Los Angeles and Dallas – with other carriers potentially joining the scheme in the coming weeks – and British Airways has said it will share the results of the project with the UK and US governments.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps launched a task force last month to develop methods of reducing the two week self-isolation period with a “test and release regime” which would still involve a self-isolation period of at least a week.
Mr Doyle says that is not enough for air travel to return to the levels they were in 2019.
“It doesn’t quite cut it,” he said.
“Without a pre-flight testing regime, we will be locked in a stop-start cycle where consumers are unclear about what the rules of the game are, and won’t be in a position to travel with confidence.”
He added that recent “great news” about potential coronavirus vaccines “shouldn’t get in the way of us actually dealing with the issues we need to deal with now”.
“We have the availability of testing in a way that doesn’t actually take away from the testing capacity of the health providers,” he said.
“We’ve got facilities set up at Heathrow. So the solution is staring us in the face. I just think we need clarity of policy.”
Changes to the government’s list of destinations exempt from the quarantine requirement are usually announced just 35 hours before the new rules come into force.
Transatlantic flights are key to the success of British Airways.
Prior to the pandemic, BA and American Airlines flew up to 111 flights a week from London to New York, but this has dropped to just 14.
British Airways’ parent company IAG swung to a pre-tax loss of 6.2bn euros (£5.6bn) for the nine months to the end of September.
This compared with a 2.3bn euros (£2.1bn) pre-tax profit during the same period a year ago.