The Biden administration is considering a requirement that domestic air passengers produce a negative COVID-19 test result before boarding a flight. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg have given comments this week that indicate this idea is under evaluation.
Walensky spoke during a press briefing Monday. She encouraged state leaders and local leaders to keep whatever restrictions are in place to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic and said this may be the next step. She calls it “another mitigation measure”. Buttigieg went to the media to float the idea.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told Axios the discussion is ongoing and the decision will be “guided by data, by science, by medicine, and by the input of the people who are actually going to have to carry this out.”
In an interview with CNN on Monday night he said, “I would say that the CDC is looking at all its options.”
“What we know is that it’s the appropriate medicine for international travel, people traveling into the U.S. given some of those considerations. I’d say the domestic picture is very different, but you know the CDC is always evaluating what can best be done to keep the American people safe.”
The threat that a variant of the coronavirus widespread in the U.K. may become the dominant virus in the United States by March, according to Dr. Fauci, is prompting a look at more stringent measures taken for air travel. The U.K. variant is not more deadly than the virus dominant in the U.S. now but it has shown to be more contagious. CDC Director Walensky’s advice to keep all the mitigation restrictions in place comes from the concern that governors like Iowa’s Governor Kim Reynolds are relaxing restrictions prematurely. Reynolds lifted that state’s mask mandate and other guidelines implemented last fall. So far, Buttigieg says the Biden administration isn’t looking into requiring proof of vaccination as a requirement to board a plane.
“That’s not a step that has been taken and, again, the CDC is really in the lead on deciding what the right measures will be,” he said. “I think right now the focus, especially at a time when most Americans haven’t had a vaccine, haven’t had access to vaccine, is to make sure while we’re getting those vaccinations out to everybody we possibly can, that we are also maintaining those measures that we also know work, like masks.”
It sounds like the CDC director is playing bad cop to Buttigieg’s good cop. Walensky wants stronger measures to be in place while Buttigieg is trying to tamp that talk down and finesse a moderate approach. He wants people to know that nothing is set in stone yet. Needless to say, airline CEOs are not thrilled with all the talk of additional mandates. They point to the cost of such a requirement and unintended consequences that can arise.
The airline industry has taken a huge hit during the coronavirus pandemic. For example, Southwest Airlines suffered a $3.1 billion loss, the first financially negative year since 1972. CEO Gary Kelly sent a letter to the White House on Tuesday and released it on Wednesday. He asks that the Biden administration not put COVID-19 testing requirements for flying within the United States into effect. The letter was co-signed by the heads of Southwest’s employee unions.
“We believe such a mandate would be counterproductive, costly, and have serious unintended consequences, including for millions of people who have travel needs but may not have access to testing resources and for the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on a stable air travel industry,” Kelly wrote in the letter.
Kelly has been among the most vocal of the CEOs in opposition to the requirement for domestic air travel. Airline CEOs admitted last month that travel restrictions on international travel, including quarantine requirements when entering the United States, proof of negative test results, and now the recommendation by the CDC that people wear not one but two face masks have hurt air travel, though they understand the reason for the requirements.
Southwest’s CEO is also taking on a more vocal role after being selected as the chairman for the trade group that represents the nation’s largest carriers, Airlines 4 America.
Airlines 4 American has noted that airplanes were less than half full on average last week, despite fewer planes in the air than before the pandemic and fares near record lows.
Overall, airline passenger traffic is still down about 70% compared to 2019 and Kelly said last month that revenue would need to double before the airline would stop losing money.
Testing all passengers flying within the United States would stretch an already constrained testing system, Kelly said. It could also require more interactions between passengers and staff members, he said.
“Most urgently, a nationwide testing requirement would once again put Southwest jobs at risk, undermining a nearly year-long effort to develop and implement the science-based protocols and procedures that make it possible to continue our operations safely,” Kelly wrote.
Southwest has received $5 billion in government grants and loans through two stimulus bills aimed at supporting airline jobs. Airline CEOs point to the fact that planes have been modified to protect passengers, including advanced air filtration systems and keeping middle seats vacant for social distancing measures.
Delta’s CEO says the testing mandate is a “horrible idea” that would not only set back the airline industry but also the hospitality industry. Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said the requirement would “substantially” reduce air travel.
Requiring COVID-19 tests for domestic travel could seriously discourage travelers, who may see it as an additional hassle during an already complicated travel experience.
It could also be a prohibitive expense for some people, who may need to pay an out-of-pocket fee if they aren’t covered by insurance.
And, even now, finding a reliable place to get a timely COVID-19 test for travel is an ongoing challenge. In some parts of the country, it could still border on impossible.
The industry trade organization, Airlines for America (A4A), called the potential move “unwarranted”, that it would “disproportionately prevent” low-income and rural Americans from air travel as they may not have access to pre-travel testing. The union points to scientific evidence that shows the risk of COVID-19 transmission on board an aircraft is very low.
Bureaucrats will bureaucrat, though, and many of them have never held a job in the private sector or owned a business. Over-restrictive mandates will continue to kill businesses until either herd immunity is achieved or the pandemic is deemed under control by the science community. Dr. Fauci and the CDC have been wrong on a lot of things during the pandemic. Even now they continue to move the goalposts. Watch for a new two-mask mandate for everyday interaction in public places. Let’s hope those in control don’t completely kill off the travel industry.