United can now deny boarding if there’s ‘reason to believe’ you were exposed to the coronavirus

May 5, 2020

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Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, United Airlines has adjusted the passenger experience to maximize social distancing and minimize your interactions with other people.

Specifically, the Chicago-based carrier has started back-to-front boarding, curtailed most of its inflight food and beverage service and implemented new and improved cabin sanitization protocols, though it continues to fall short of peers Alaska, Delta and Southwest, which are capping passenger bookings to guarantee extra space.

Last week UA joined most major U.S. carriers in requiring that passengers wear face coverings in line with Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines.

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On Monday, the carrier updated its Contract of Carriage to include a new provision around the customers that it can refuse to transport.

Specifically, the following bolded changes were made to the section around passenger safety:

Passengers who are incapable of completing a flight safely, without requiring extraordinary medical assistance during the flight, and Passengers who appear to have symptoms of or have a communicable disease (or there is reason to believe there was exposure to a communicable disease) or other condition that could pose a direct threat to the health or safety of themselves or others on the flight, or who refuse a medical screening for such disease or condition, whether suspected or actual.

This update to the conditions of flying with United specifically allow the carrier to refuse transport if it has “reason to believe” that you were exposed to the coronavirus. These changes permit United to remove you solely based on its suspicion.

In explaining these changes, a United spokesperson exclusively told TPG that “this update was made to help us better protect the health and safety of our customers and crew, and was made in line with our new requirement that all United employees and passengers wear a face covering while onboard the aircraft that went into effect May 4.”

It’ll be interesting to see how (and if) these new changes take effect. Perhaps the carrier is setting itself up to have a legal basis to deny carriage to those who don’t submit themselves to airport coronavirus testing.

United economy class on a Boeing 787 (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

As airlines look to recover from the pandemic, they’re attempting to reassure the flying public that it’s once again safe to take to the skies. Mandated, on-the-spot coronavirus testing could become a thing of the future, much like airport security.

Emirates has already implemented COVID-19 testing on select flights. Passengers are all screened before departure to ensure that no one onboard is carrying the virus.

Additionally, many countries don’t want to see a second wave of coronavirus cases. For instance, Austria has a policy that states that arriving passengers must go into a 14-day quarantine if they don’t present a health certificate showing a negative COVID-19 test result that’s no more than four days old. If you don’t have a recent COVID-19 test, the Vienna airport now offers on-demand testing to help you avoid a quarantine.

Related: How US airlines are handling distancing, masks and more

As United begins to ramp up international travel, some of its destinations may require COVID-19 testing. The update to the Contract of Carriage allows the carrier to require such testing in order to be permitted to board, even if the carrier only has “reason to believe” you might carry the disease.

United Polaris class on a Boeing 787 (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

This wasn’t the only change to be included in the Contract of Carriage. United also formalized its face covering mandate by adding a clause to the list of passengers that it can refuse:

Passengers who refuse to wear a mask or face covering while at the airport and/or onboard UA and United Express flights if UA or United Express believe, in their sole discretion, that a failure to wear such a mask or facial covering may pose a risk to the health or safety of others.

All in all, we’re living in unprecedented times. It might not be too long before you’re required to take a COVID-19 test in order to board a United flight.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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