Airlines push back on potential Covid testing for domestic flights

A man receives a nasal swab COVID-19 test at Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) amid a coronavirus surge in Southern California on December 22, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.

Mario Tama | Getty Images

The U.S. this week started requiring travelers to show negative Covid-19 tests before flying to the United States from abroad.

Now the Biden administration is “actively looking” at whether to mandate Covid-19 tests before domestic flights, a senior Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official said Tuesday.

Airlines balked.

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly asked on a quarterly call Thursday, “Why pick on air travel?

“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,” Kelly said. “Test them before they go to a sporting event.”

On Wednesday, the U.S. Travel Association, an industry group that represents large hotel chains, Airbnb and several airports said the plan would be “unworkable,” because Covid testing availability varies so much across the country.

The CDC didn’t respond to a request for comment. Dr. Marty Cetron, director for the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine at the CDC, told reporters that it’s considering further travel rules but didn’t say it will definitely require domestic tests.

Hard hit

The travel industry and airlines in particular have been among the hardest-hit businesses in the coronavirus pandemic. Travel restrictions aimed at stopping the disease from spreading around the world and concerns over catching the virus has devastated demand. U.S. carriers this week said they lost $34 billion last year. Delta Air Lines and American American reported record annual losses and Southwest logged its first annual loss since 1972.

Domestic testing requirements could further impact bookings, which airline executives this week warned aren’t likely to rebound until more people are vaccinated.

“In the short term, a domestic testing requirement could further dampen travel demand and create confusion at a time when case counts are diminishing,” wrote Raymond James airline analyst Savi Syth in a note Thursday. “We expect testing supply to be an impediment to such an order in the short term and believe a test enforcement is more likely by summer when vaccine distribution is more widespread and testing capacities are greater.”

Carriers have rolled out eye-popping fare sales and have touted on-board filtration systems, deeper cleanings, strict mask requirements and other safety measures in hopes travelers will feel it’s safe to fly.

Testing requirements for domestic flights seem “like something that would both be difficult and would have us testing Americans on airplanes that we all know are safe to be on,” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said Thursday on a quarterly earnings call. “We’ll obviously work with the administration on what they think makes sense … but also let them know what kind of impact that would have on travel.”

Airlines have been supportive of the international testing requirements, though airline executives hope they replace blanket travel bans, a step former President Donald Trump took before he left office this month. But new, more contagious strains of the virus prompted the Biden administration to renew Trump’s entry ban on most non-U.S. citizens if they have recently been in the U.K., Brazil, and much of Europe, and added South Africa to the list.

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