Delta Air Lines Inc. is working with at least two European governments and airports to operate flights using COVID-19 testing protocols that would allow travelers to bypass quarantine requirements upon arrival.
The airline said the flights from its hometown in Atlanta to Rome and Amsterdam provide a key first step to restoring trans-Atlantic travel demand as the world awaits vaccines that could stem the spread of COVID-19.
“Creating COVID-free travel corridors, in addition to the multiple layers of safety and hygiene measures we have implemented through the Delta CareStandard, will provide customers – and authorities – greater confidence that they can stay healthy when flying,” said Steve Sear, Delta’s president of international and executive vice president of global sales, in a statement.
In the case of Italy, entry is currently limited to citizens or foreign travelers who have received special authorization for business, health, education or other purposes. Even those permitted to travel are normally required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.
Delta worked with the international airports in Atlanta and Rome, along with public health authorities in Georgia and Italy, to develop a way around the quarantine for flights restarting Dec. 19.
In Atlanta, the traveler must take a Polymerase Chain Reaction test within 72 hours of departure and provide a negative result at check-in, followed by a negative rapid antigen test before boarding. Rapid tests are administered after security at a designated location at Concourse E at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
It’s unclear what documentation Delta will require to certify the initial negative PCR test, though a Delta spokesperson told Global Atlanta more information on this would be forthcoming.
Before gaining entry to Italy, travelers will have to receive a negative rapid antigen test result. The same will be required before their return flight to the U.S., and they will be required to fill out a contract-tracing questionnaire. Delta will transmit this basic personal information to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The Mayo Clinic, which consulted for Delta on the pilot program along with the Georgia Department of Public Health, said its models show just a one-in-a-million chance of contracting COVID-19 on a flight that layers adequate testing with measures like mask wearing, air circulation and cleaning that Delta has already instituted.
Will Businesses Sign Up?
It may seem like a small step forward, but the move could be a godsend for companies with acute business needs. Though many have grounded all corporate travel, others have been forced to find circuitous, time-consuming routes around entry restrictions.
Global Atlanta has heard directly from European companies that have sent employees to third countries like Mexico or Turkey to for 14 days to to get around U.S. restrictions on Schengen-area travelers. Some have had to push back factory openings, vital equipment maintenance or executive start dates.
Georgia Department of Economic Development Commissioner Pat Wilson said the program is a sign of Delta’s innovative leadership during the pandemic and Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey’s “forthright, available” approach to providing business leaders and the international community with actionable information and expertise.
He said the collaboration could help facilitate jobs for Georgians at a time when economic recovery is paramount.
“Italy remains a strategic market for trade and investment. Recent announcements, like La Regina di San Marzano in Alma and Kysor Warren Epta in Columbus, highlight the increased opportunity we are seeing from the country. Business follows connectivity, and as companies look to reach their investments as quickly and easily as possible, this quarantine-free flight will definitely assist our efforts,” said Mr. Wilson, who met with both companies during a recent trip to Europe.
Delta announced Friday that it had crafted a similar arrangement with its joint venture partner Royal Dutch-KLM starting Dec. 15. Each airline will operate two of four COVID-tested flights per week between Atlanta and Amsterdam, with travelers being able to choose between these flights and a separate daily frequency.
This COVID program will run for an initial three weeks, with the goal of rolling it out to other markets if successful.
For the Amsterdam flight, a PCR test is required within five days of departure from Atlanta, followed by self-isolation until the day of the flight and a negative rapid test before boarding. A traveler who tests negative upon arrival in the Netherlands is allowed entry without the mandated 10-day quarantine.
Whether companies show up for the flights, however, remains unclear amid lingering uncertainty. For instance, if a traveler contracts the virus on the ground and tests positive before their flight home, for instance, regulations require a 14-day stay in Italy before a flight back to the U.S. (Delta says it would waive any fees for changing the ticket, as it has more broadly with itineraries affected by coronavirus.)
Eugenio Fumo, president and CEO of logistics firm JAS Forwarding in Atlanta, was skeptical that the flights will engender sufficient confidence among executives.
He offered an anecdote: A colleague recently traveled back to Milan for a family emergency. He had already contracted COVID in the U.S. months ago but tested positive before leaving Italy, then had to wait seven days for a second test, as per local regulations. Only after that negative result and a second one a few days later was he allowed to leave. (To be clear, health officials have not determined that a previous infection provides lasting immunity.)
“In his case he has family in Italy but what would it be like for a normal American business traveler or for an Italian who gets stuck in the U.S.?” said Mr. Fumo, who also heads up the Georgia chapter of the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Southeast.
“We wish Delta the best, and the fact that they are doing this is great news and testimony to their willingness of always bringing solutions and improvements to their customers. As a resident of Atlanta I wish this program and Delta the best, but I am not sure it will be a huge needle-mover.”
As a company, JAS is planning to keep its internal travel ban in place until the end of next year’s second quarter, Mr. Fumo said.
“Obviously we would love to be wrong because it would mean we are through this mess, but as they say, prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”