Delta launches ‘COVID-free’ flights to Europe on Tuesday

Dec 16, 2020

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Delta will fly its first “COVID-free” flight Tuesday, part of an effort to demonstrate that international travel can occur even at the height of the coronavirus crisis.

Delta Flight 76 will depart Atlanta at 9:55 p.m. Tuesday and arrive Amsterdam at 12:10 p.m. Wednesday, all times local. Only a few dozen passengers will occupy the Airbus A330-300, but Delta sees the flight as “just a first step,” said Perry Cantarutti, Delta senior vice president for alliances and international.

Passengers must undergo three COVID tests: one three or four days before departure, one at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and one on arrival at Schiphol Airport.  Negative results will enable passengers to avoid quarantine.

Delta and trans-Atlantic joint-venture partner KLM will offer COVID -free travel on four of their 26 combined weekly Atlanta-Amsterdam flights, with two per week on each airline. Delta has Tuesday and Friday; KLM has Monday and Wednesday.

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A similar program for Atlanta-Rome flights will begin Saturday. The Rome flight, which has been on sale since mid-November, is nearly sold out, Cantarutti said.

The flights “could help us to create similar programs into other markets,” Cantarutti said on a conference call with reporters. “We’re talking about expanding this program, (which provides) a much more reliable way to assure healthiness than quarantines, which are self-administered and not always well-followed.”

Cantarutti said varied quarantine requirements around the world create a “patchwork” that make travel difficult. He foresees “a dialogue about relaxation of border closures — this is a topic we can visit before the pilot programs are complete.”

Delta wants “to make sure we’re not embarking people where their status of COVID negative would turn to COVID positive” during travel, he said. “For that reason, we’ve put more testing requirement into our process than authorities [have] defined as the minimum requirement.”

The flights represent “an important step in helping to reopen the skies, to get the world moving again,” Cantarutti said. “We hope that after this initial period, which takes us to the end of January, we’ll be able to leverage the experience, to be able to get more opening for travel in Europe, so U.S. citizens can travel.”

More: Airline coronavirus change and cancellation policies: A complete list of major carriers

“The arrival of a vaccine is great news,” he said, but it will take time for a vaccine to become widely available around the world.

Typically, the Netherlands requires arrivals from the United States and many other countries to self-quarantine for 10 days, whether they have symptoms or have tested negative. Italy requires most arrivals from abroad to self-isolate for 14 days.

Furthermore, the trial doesn’t necessarily open up the Netherlands to tourists. For now, this new protocol is limited to citizens who are permitted to travel for essential reasons, such as certain specified work, health and education reasons. This also doesn’t apply to those transiting the airport.

More: Travel bubbles coming? United Airlines tests potential solution on London-Newark flight

Still, Delta said it is now “the first U.S. airline to offer COVID-free, quarantine-free flights between the U.S. and Europe, which allow customers to avoid quarantine after testing negative for the virus prior to travel and upon arrival in the Netherlands and Italy.”

United previously ran a similar trial on flights from Newark to London Heathrow in a program that began Nov. 16 and ended Dec. 11. United spokesman Robert Einhorn said the United program had “no restrictions on who can participate and enter the U.K.” However, the U.K. requires passengers to quarantine for 10 days, with a new, shorter isolation period now available with a testing regimen.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to clarify when United’s trial ran on its U.K-U.S. flights.

Contributing: Zach Griff, TPG

Featured photo courtesy of Airbus.

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