Moneybox

How an Airport Massage Chain Pivoted to Preflight COVID Tests

They cost $250 a pop.

A man with a rolling luggage walks through an airport terminal.
Get your results, board your flight. (Pay $225 or more first.) Anthony Behar/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect

It was only a matter of time before someone tried to corner the market on COVID-19 testing at airports. The surprise is that the company best poised to do it used to sell manicures and travel pillows.

XpresCheck is an outgrowth of XpresSpa, a 15-year-old-company best known for its in-terminal neck massages. Now it’s testing travelers and airport workers for the novel coronavirus in 13 clinics at 11 U.S. airports, selling a service that many of its customers need to get on the plane. When I reached XpresSpa CEO Doug Satzman on Friday, I half-expected a spiel on how his firm had always been a top player in the airport wellness space. Nope. “It’s so obvious!” he said when I asked why his firm decided to get into the swab game. And then: “Just kidding.”

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Satzman was barely a year in as the CEO of XpresSpa, a publicly traded company with 80 airport locations, when the entire business model was obliterated in early 2020. Fifteen months later, just two of those spas are open.

But after a phone call with a board member last spring, Satzman saved his company by pivoting to COVID. The pandemic has forced many such reinventions, and not just in health care. Distilleries started making hand sanitizer; Wingstop launched Thighstop to cope with snarled poultry supply chains.

XpresSpa took XpresCheck from idea to pilot in just 75 days, hiring medical staff and securing new airport real estate. While these sites make up just a fraction of the company’s pre-pandemic footprint, the unit economics are quite a bit better. After initially furloughing nearly all his corporate staff, Satzman has brought back the whole office—and retrained some airport spa managers to work alongside trained medical professionals at the clinics.

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Why are the unit economics better? Because at XpresCheck, the rapid PCR test Americans need to enter many countries costs $250. That’s a lot of neck cushions.

Satzman told me the price for these Abbott ID Now tests isn’t much more than what you would pay outside the airport, and is justified when you consider the elevated costs of doing business there. He bristled when I suggested XpresCheck was a service of last resort that could charge whatever it wanted to a captive clientele: air travelers with inadequate testing documents and impending departures. Many people actually planned to use their service, he insists.

In the muted arrivals hall of Terminal 4 at New York’s JFK Airport, XpresCheck has set up a neat little structure for its services, a low warren of rooms beneath the airport’s towering ceiling. I talked to four travelers who were waiting for test results; none had really meant to end up here.

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A woman heading to South Korea by way of Abu Dhabi had gotten a free COVID test at her doctor’s office at 2 p.m. on Friday, only to realize at check-in that more than 72 hours would have elapsed by the time of her takeoff at 10 p.m. on Monday. So she ponied up $225 for a second test. (JFK’s XpresCheck is $25 cheaper than the other locations.)

A young man on his way to Israel had gotten tested at Walgreens before his flight, only to spend three days in an increasing state of panic about his unreceived results. On Monday morning, he reluctantly made an appointment at XpresCheck.

And a just-married couple en route to their honeymoon in Greece had planned to travel with their vaccine cards when their direct flight to Athens was canceled and replaced with a flight through Paris. The new transfer meant they needed negative PCR tests, which meant they missed the replacement flight. Reassigned to a third flight, through Zurich, they spent $450 on two rapid COVID tests and headed back toward check-in.

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“Well, we’ve already set a million dollars on fire,” the groom said.

“It’s a pigfuck,” said the bride, describing their wallet-draining experience at the American Airlines desk upstairs.

But at least they were getting on a plane. Many airports, including Chicago’s O’Hare, don’t even offer rapid PCR testing—screw up your documents for an international flight from Chicago and you will miss your flight.

One reason tests cost so much at XpresCheck is that the clinics stopped accepting insurance earlier this year, after some insurers stopped covering out-of-network COVID tests for vacations. If you were to pay for your own COVID test at CVS, it would cost $139. Aegis, which handles testing at Walgreens, charges $143. Those sky-high prices can persist because they are generally hidden from the public by insurance coverage, and that coverage is in turn propped up by federal outlays.

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But even at that price, there’s no guarantee you get fast results. For the sure thing, prices vary widely. Northwell Health’s GoHealth charges $270 for a rapid PCR test. Los Angeles International Airport is offering one-hour rapid PCR tests for $199. Adams Health Services offers a one-hour PCR at JFK’s Terminal One for $220.

“The pre-travel testing for vaccinated people especially can be a financial hurdle if arrival countries require it,” said Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist who teaches at the University of Arizona. “Ideally, we should have rapid, high-quality testing readily available to people and that includes at no or low cost.” (Even if you pay those prices upfront, you may find your insurance company will cover the cost. Mine said it would.)

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Satzman didn’t make much of an effort to trade off the company’s brand to get the testing business going in airports like SFO, BOS, and IAD. “There’s nothing that says XpresSpa,” he said. “It looks different. Different website, different branding, different business. The only thing that’s the same is the misspelling of express and the color orange. If you come through, you wouldn’t have any idea that they’re affiliated, and we didn’t think that was important.”

In a way, it’s not so random. XpresCheck isn’t trading off expertise in health and wellness so much as its good working relationship with airports, which are not the easiest places to do business. Rent is expensive. Paperwork is burdensome. Workers live far away and some must pass through security to get to their jobs each morning. (Most XpresCheck locations are before security, but a handful mainly serve connecting travelers.)

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But how durable is the XpresCheck model? Even with a slow global vaccine rollout, it seems like a business that does not have that much room to run. Not so, countered Satzman. “Should there be other infectious disease threats that come, we can very easily switch to other tests. We’re still taking our shoes off 10 years later, after some idiot had a shoe bomb.” A well-developed testing infrastructure, he said, is the key to avoiding panicked shutdowns and overreactions like the ones the world went through last spring.

In other words, $250 nose swabs may be a part of international travel for years to come, as unprepared travelers confront complicated rules and flight changes. Does that stress you out? Perhaps XpresSpa could interest you in a massage.

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