‘A real game changer’: United Airlines to begin COVID-19 testing pilot program for Hawaii-bound flights

  • A rapid Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 test is administered in San Francisco. United Airlines will kick off a COVID-19 pilot testing program Oct. 15 for travelers flying between San Francisco and Hawaii, including to Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole. (Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • United Airlines will kick off a COVID-19 pilot testing program Oct. 15 for travelers flying between San Francisco and Hawaii, including to Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole. (Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • United Airlines will kick off a COVID-19 pilot testing program Oct. 15 for travelers flying between San Francisco and Hawaii, including to Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole. (Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • A rapid Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 test is administered in San Francisco. (Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

United Airlines will kick off a COVID-19 pilot testing program next month for travelers flying between San Francisco and Hawaii, including to Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole.

Starting Oct. 15, the same day the state lifts the quarantine requirement for travelers able to produce a negative COVID-19 test result upon arrival, customers flying on United from San Francisco International Airport to the Aloha State will have the option to take a rapid test at the airport.

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The program, which costs $250, essentially ensures a passenger is able to provide the proof upon arrival, allowing them to begin their Hawaii vacation right then and there — bypassing the dreaded 14-day quarantine for visitors and returning Hawaii residents alike.

“That will really be a game-changer for us — it will help a lot,” said Lt. Gov. Dr. Josh Green, who helped secure the deal between the state and airline. “I expect other airlines to follow suit.”

The other option for travelers, not flying via United Airlines, will be to take a state-approved COVID-19 test via CVS or Kaiser Permanente within 72 hours of the final leg of departure.

If test results are not available upon arrival in Hawaii, the traveler must quarantine until the negative test results are reported to the state Department of Health.

“If you don’t have your test result, you go into quarantine — that’s the rule,” Green said. “And then, if you do end up getting a positive test, you’re going to be in quarantine for 14 days.”

Under the pilot program agreement, San Francisco travelers headed to Daniel K. Inouye Honolulu International Airport, Maui’s Kahului International Airport, Kauai’s Lihue International Airport and Kona International Airport will be able to elect to take a rapid Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 test.

The test, which provides results within 15 minutes, will be administered at the San Francisco airport by GoHealth Urgent Care and its partner Dignity Health on the same day of the flight, according to United Airlines.

“It will be safe and it will be accurate,” Green said. “It’s a good thing.”

Green clarified Thursday that the state has not yet approved a self-collected, mail-in test option to be administered by Color, which touts itself as a “leader in distributed healthcare and clinical testing.” United Airlines in a Thursday press release said customers could elect to complete either pre-flight.

“We are approving their testing at the airport, but their mail-in testing part process has not been approved yet,” Green said. “In the meantime, right now, the governor prefers that all testing be observed and the mail-in testing has not been approved yet.”

Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim said Thursday he still needed to review the United Airlines program, but called it a beginning point. He noted he remains concerned about the logistics, including keeping track of people, including who has or has not been tested, effective Oct. 15.

“As usual, our concerns are operational,” he said. “Something like this is good news, as far as people being able to come here, finding ways of bringing tourist back in a safe way for them as well as obviously the people of Hawaii.”

The 14-day quarantine, which went into effect March 26, has greatly impacted the state’s tourism economy, putting thousands out of work.

According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, visitor arrivals to the islands were down 98% in July from the year prior. Hawaii Island arrivals were down to 3,700 from 173,899 in July 2019. Hotel occupancy on the island was just 26.1% in August, down from 80.9% the year prior.

The South Kohala Coast Resort Association — which represents shuttered hotels along Hawaii Island’s leeward coast, including the Mauna Kea Beach Resort, Fairmont Orchid and Westin Hapuna — applauded the agreement.

“It is very exciting to hear that United Airlines is taking this step,” said Stephanie Donoho, the association’s administrative director. “I am also very glad to hear that Lt. Governor Green has said that this test would satisfy the state’s testing requirements for visitors to bypass the mandatory 14-day quarantine.”

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United Airlines said it is the first U.S. airline to begin a pilot program for COVID-19, noting the effort will make it easier for its passengers to “manage quarantine requirements and entry conditions of popular destinations around the world.” It builds on rapid testing that began in July for international flight crews at San Francisco International Airport.

“Our new COVID testing program is another way we are helping customers meet their destinations’ entry requirements, safely and conveniently,” said United Chief Customer Officer Toby Enqvist. “We’ll look to quickly expand customer testing to other destinations and U.S. airports later this year to complement our state-of-the-art cleaning and safety measures that include a mandatory mask policy, antimicrobial and electrostatic spraying and our hospital-grade HEPA air filtration systems.”

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