No Flight Can Truly Be COVID-Free

Person in mask on a plane, applying hand sanitizer. He has the row to himself.

Photo: EugeneEdge (Shutterstock)

Delta is now offering “quarantine-free” flights to Europe, which, in a bold move they are also billing as “COVID-free.” If only it were so easy to guarantee that the coronavirus won’t be on the plane. The flights do use a testing protocol to reduce the chances that somebody with COVID makes it on board, though.

So far the airline is offering two such routes, one from Atlanta to Amsterdam and one from Atlanta to Rome. Both Italy and the Netherlands require travelers to quarantine, but have agreed that people who enter the countries on these flights can bypass that restriction.

That said, neither country currently allows tourist travel, so these flights are for people with legitimate work, school, or health reasons to travel.

The flights will operate at less than full capacity, with the middle seats blocked out, and mask wearing enforced. Delta describes the pre-flight testing protocol as follows:

To fly on Delta’s COVID-tested flights between Atlanta and Rome, customers will need to test negative for COVID-19 through:

  • A COVID Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test taken up to 72 hours before departure
  • A rapid test administered at the airport in Atlanta before boarding
  • A rapid test on arrival in Rome-Fiumicino
  • A rapid test at Rome-Fiumicino before departure to the United States

Customers also will be asked to provide information upon entry into the U.S. to support CDC contact-tracing protocols.

Delta reports that the State of Georgia and the governments of the Netherlands and Rome have agreed to the protocols, and that mathematical modeling shows that the risk of contracting COVID on such a flight is minuscule.

That said, it’s impossible to ensure that a flight is truly COVID-free. You could be exposed to COVID as you move through the airport, for example, in which case you would very likely test negative on the rapid tests.

This option could still be useful if you need to travel for essential reasons, especially if you are high risk. Delta has not said what will happen if you book your flight and then test positive at the airport, or if you fly and then test positive upon landing.

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