Could airlines require negative COVID-19 tests to fly?

In less than three months, a company better known for airport back rubs completely retooled itself into a clinic offering on-the-fly COVID-19 tests. XpresCheck will do a deep nose swab for the PCR test that tells if you’re currently infected, or a blood draw to test whether you’ve got antibodies to the virus.

The clinic is located in Terminal B, where Newark Airport staff and travelers alike can right walk up or make an appointment.

“I think that’s a great idea. Whatever can be added to make sure that everybody is safe, not just the people that are flying, the passengers, but the people that work here, too,” said Georgia resident Takisha Williams.

“I guess if it’s what they want to do, if it makes them feel comfortable, that’s fine. But to me, I would think it’s just pointless,” said Texas resident Sarah Sharbine.

Port Authority Chairman Kevin O’Toole desperately wants air travelers to feel safe enough to get back on a plane. The airline industry crashed during the pandemic and Newark Airport is still struggling with just 25 to 30% of the traffic it saw last year.

XpresCheck started testing airport staff at Newark and at New York City’s JFK Airport last month.

“We have had very few positives [cases] compared to the state’s statistics, which tells me that airport and airline employees are a very knowledgable group on how to keep themselves safe,” said XpresCheck and XpresSpa CEO Doug Satzman

“We’re also partnering with XpresSpa to make sure they have a direct line of communication. So between the two of us, we’re making sure that every single employee around this airport is aware of this,” said Port Authority Director of Aviation Huntley Lawrence.

ExpresCheck charges your health insurance for the tests and hopes to stanch its own substantial pandemic revenue losses by opening COVID-19 test clinics at more than 20 additional airports nationwide.

One big problem is the turnaround for test results remains two to five days. They’ve reached out to Abbott Labs for its ID Now COVID-19 rapid test.

“Where we will be doing the service here, on site, which will reduce the turnaround time from two to three days, or as many as five, down to 15 minutes once the test is administered,” said Satzman.

One airline industry analyst thinks COVID-19 testing or proof of vaccination could eventually become a pre-flight mandate.

“If we want our economy to come back, if we want our freedom of travel to come back, we have to be willing to accept that it’s going to be a different world, and that may mean proving our good health to airlines, airports and other government authorities in order to have freedom of travel,” said Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research Group.

In fact, some countries only admit air travelers with negative COVID-19 tests. More than 34,500 passengers arriving at Newark from dozens of so-called hot spot states have so far registered to quarantine, says New Jersey’s Department of Health.

Meanwhile, United Airlines, based at Newark’s Terminal C, announced Wednesday that it will fly just 34% of its full schedule in September and 40% in October. With revenues down 87%, United also plans to furlough more than 16,000 workers nationwide, more than 3,500 of them at Newark.

“That’s deeply concerning, and the travel business, my guess, doesn’t get back on its feet globally, never mind in New Jersey  for many years to come and that’s another mountain we’re going to have to climb together,” said Gov. Phil Murphy at Tuesday’s coronavirus news briefing.

It took three years for air travel to recover after 9/11 and seven years after the Great Recession. Without a COVID-19 vaccine, the airline industry is again bracing for a prolonged impact.