Getting Tested At Airports – What You Need To Know

In recent months, more and more airlines and airports have begun to offer on-site testing for coronavirus. The ongoing pandemic has significantly changed the way we travel, but some hope that testing-based models could end the awkwardness of mandatory quarantine periods. However, certain variables relating to the testing vary from place to place. So what things do you need to be aware of ahead of an on-site COVID test?

United 787
United Airlines recently began a testing program for passengers on certain flights between London Heathrow and Newark. Photo: Getty Images

When do the tests take place?

Depending on the airline and/or location, tests can occur at either your departure or arrival airport. Tests that are a condition of flying in the first place are generally imposed by airlines, and must be taken in advance of departure. For example, this is the case on Lufthansa’s ‘COVID-free’ flights between Munich and Hamburg, which began earlier this month.

On the other hand, some countries, such as Portugal, require incoming passengers to either take or present evidence of a negative test upon their arrival in the country, if they have come from a ‘high-risk’ territory. This kind of restriction was imposed by the Portuguese border force, rather than any of the country’s airlines or airport operators.

Lufthansa parked and grounded planes
Lufthansa’s COVID-free Munich-Hamburg flights launched on November 12th. Passengers on these flights generally find out the results of their pre-flight tests in less than an hour. Photo: Getty Images

How much extra time is required?

Regardless of at which stage of your journey the test occurs, it is important to factor in the additional time you will have to set aside to complete the process. The aforementioned Lufthansa tests, for example, generate results in around 30-60 minutes. The program used by Austrian Airlines can inform passengers of their results in as little as a quarter of an hour, while United’s transatlantic testing program produces results in around half an hour.

In some cases, one can avoid taking a test at the airport by presenting a valid negative result from the previous 72 hours. Passengers on Alitalia’s COVID-free Milan-Rome flights may do this, for example. However, the inconvenience of taking a test at an airport is far less significant than that of a mandatory quarantine period. The state of New York recently allowed passengers to avoid quarantine upon presentation of a negative test. Should this prove successful, we may yet see more areas move towards such loopholes.

JetBlue New York La Guardia
Travelers entering New York now have the option to ‘test out’ of the state’s otherwise mandatory quarantine period. Photo: Getty Images

What if you do not wish to take a test?

It may be the case that a passenger booked on a COVID-free flight does not wish to take a test. In this instance, airlines will respect their decision, but are forced to accommodate them on another flight for which testing is not a mandatory aspect. This is generally done free of charge, but is, of course, subject to availability. Airlines are looking to clearly signal which of their flights require testing at multiple points in the booking process. This should help to minimize confusion and extra administration for both passengers and staff.

However, refusal to take a test where to do so is a condition of entry into a country is a far less flexible matter. To use Portugal’s example, over 2,000 high-risk arrivals into Lisbon refused to take a test between July 15th and September 30th. In these cases, they are immediately notified by the border force, which requests that they take a private test at their own expense within 48 hours.

Despite the requirement to do so, it has been reported that thousands of ‘high-risk’ arrivals into Portugal have refused to take/present a test. Photo: Getty Images

Such passengers may not leave their homes until their test result is known. To enforce this, the Portuguese border force will inform the local authorities in their area of residence. They would also be subject to prosecution for “the crimes of disobedience and spread of contagious disease.”

On the whole, the long-term flexibility of being able to travel once again and potentially avoid quarantine outweighs the short-term inconvenience of having to take a test before departure or upon arrival. It will certainly be interesting to see whether or not more territories move towards New York’s testing-based approach over the coming months.

What are your thoughts? Let us know what you think in the comment section.