Testing the Limits | Business Travel News

As the staggering U.S. Covid-19 case counts of January declined sharply in February and vaccine distribution, however scattershot, sped up, it’s not unreasonable for the business travel industry to at least consider the possibility that the darkest days of the pandemic just may be in the past. But even as certain states ease some social-distancing restrictions and other safety measures, the thus-far unrealized prospect (at press time, anyway) of additional U.S. federal directives on permissible air travel has frustrated suppliers and industry organizations. 

Specifically, carriers and associations have objected to the possibility that the new administration of President Joe Biden could require passengers to test negative for Covid-19 before flying domestically. The concern seems to stem from remarks to reporters from Dr. Marty Cetron, director of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine. According to Reuters, Cetron told reporters officials were “actively looking” at the possibility of a requirement for such testing, and officials were having “conversations that are ongoing and looking at what the types and locations of testing might be.”

Carriers responded quickly. Two days after Cetron’s Jan. 26 remarks, American Airlines chairman and CEO Doug Parker, JetBlue president and COO Joanna Geraghty and Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly during their respective fourth-quarter earnings calls pushed back against the possibility of domestic testing requirements, calling them cumbersome, difficult to implement and unfairly specific to air travel.

“I would just make the argument: Why pick on air travel?” Kelly said. “If you want to test people, test them. But test them before they go to the grocery store. Test them before they go to a restaurant. Test them before they go to a sporting event.”

“Air travel is just one mode of travel,” Geraghty said. “You obviously have rail, road transportation. People need to travel, they’ll figure out a way to get there. … Frankly, putting this burden on air travel is, we think, far too cumbersome.”

(Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn this month said he didn’t know if requiring a negative Covid-19 test to use the rail service “would actually work and how it could actually be enforced,” according to Reuters.)

Geraghty also said available slots for Covid-19 testing were scarce in some areas of the U.S., and adding mandatory tests for domestic passengers would further burden the testing process and hinder laboratories’ ability to deliver results quickly. “Frankly, we’re concerned that it would actually reduce the ability of some people who legitimately need to get tested for health reasons to get tested,” she said. 

Parker said American is prepared to comply with whatever regulations come along, but he said domestic testing would be “difficult” and unnecessary given studies that have indicated Covid-19 transmission on aircraft is limited.

“We’ll obviously work with the administration and what they think makes sense and do our best to make sure that we’re all doing everything we can to make sure that people are safe, and also that we get through this pandemic as quickly as possible, but we’ll also let them know what kind of impact that would have on travel,” Parker said. “I didn’t say that we weren’t supportive of doing something more, but if we do, we certainly would want to make sure it was something that wouldn’t restrict demand.”

The U.S. Travel Association is against such testing requirements for domestic flights, public affairs and policy EVP Tori Emerson Barnes late last month said, as they would be difficult to enforce, likely would be inconsistent across different states, and could increase the cost of travel.

The Global Business Travel Association in a Feb. 12 statement said it “strongly opposes” a domestic U.S. testing mandate. “An aviation-only testing mandate would not be scalable, feasible nor effective, and may in fact be discriminatory and unwarranted,” GBTA interim executive director Dave Hilfman said in the statement. “Highlighting personal responsibility and personal accountability as opposed to blanket orders that are next to impossible to manage is how we as a nation will emerge from this time of devastating loss of life, mental stress and economic struggles.” 

International Changes

The Biden administration last month issued a new order that all arriving international air passengers show proof of a negative test taken within three days of their flight, and that airlines must deny boarding to anyone who does not. 

Parker late last month said the requirement has caused a hit on international demand, particularly for short-haul travel, to such destinations as Mexico and the Caribbean. In general, however, he expressed support for the new measures.

“We support international testing, because that’s about getting more people to be comfortable flying across borders,” Parker said. “We are hopeful that doing so allows [Biden’s] administration to get more comfortable with airlines and be open to allowing more people to travel to the United States at some point.”

The Canadian government late last month instituted a new set of orders on international travel as well, more restrictive than their neighbors to the south. Canada now requires mandatory Covid-19 PCR testing at the airport for passengers arriving in Canada on international flights. Travelers then will have to stay at an approved hotel while awaiting test results—which, with food and additional infection control method costs taken into consideration, will run a traveler about C$2,000—and then, upon getting a negative result, quarantine at home under “significantly increased surveillance and enforcement,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the Associated Press. Travelers still are required to take Covid-19 tests prior to boarding inbound international flights to Canada.

As such, Air Canada and WestJet each have temporarily suspended flights to Mexico and the Caribbean at least through the end of April.  

In the United Kingdom, all travelers arriving from the 30 countries on the government’s “red list” of countries with known variants of Covid-19, including South Africa, Brazil and Portugal, will be required to quarantine in a government-provided hotel for 10 days, under new regulations. 

Business Travel Association CEO Clive Wratten said of the new U.K. regulations, “The introduction of quarantine hotels is another death knell for the travel industry as a whole but especially for business travel. 

“Public safety must come first, but we question the timing of this announcement and the lack of investment in a long-term strategy to get the U.K. traveling again, such as pre-departure testing. 

“Further, placing the burden of proof for the validity of travel onto international carriers is an untenable situation for companies and staff that are already at breaking point.”

BTN Europe’s Mark Frary contributed to this report. 

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