Jun 10, 2022

Testing requirement lifted for international flights, but at what cost to travelers' health and safety?


Pre-departure testing no longer required

Airline passengers traveling to the U.S. from abroad no longer have to produce a negative Covid test taken the day before travel. The move eliminates one of the hassles of flying internationally, but at what cost to the safety of customers and crew?

From the feedback I received on a recent blog post arguing in favor of keeping the requirement, many believe pre-departure testing is not worth the trouble or expense, even as highly-transmissible Omicron variants spread, and passengers no longer have to wear masks.

For those readers, the Biden Administration had good news over the weekend. As of Sunday, June 12, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention dropped its testing requirement which applied to all travelers entering the U.S. by air - vaccinated and unvaccinated. Airlines and others in the travel industry pushed the administration to drop the requirement, arguing it was hurting demand for international trips. 

Over the weekend, they praised the government's decision, citing mainly economic benefits, but not addressing how the move might affect the health and safety of passengers and crew. 

The administration put in place the testing requirement last year, as it moved away from restrictions that banned nonessential travel from several dozen countries. The initial mandate allowed those who were fully vaccinated to show proof of a negative test within three days of travel, while unvaccinated people had to present a test taken within one day of travel.

In November, as the Omicron variant swept the world, the administration toughened the requirement and required all travelers, regardless of vaccination status, to test within a day of travel to the US.

The CDC, which says it still recommends testing before any flight, said it will reassess the decision in 90 days.  “If there is a need to reinstate a pre-departure testing requirement — including due to a new, concerning variant — CDC will not hesitate to act,”  and official said.

Let's hope so, because in the meantime, anyone with Covid or with symptoms of Covid can now board an international flight to the U.S., no questions asked. There is no requirement that anyone wear a mask. Airlines argue that their filtration systems offer good protection, but that's not reassuring when someone sitting next to you for hours is coughing, or the plane sits on the tarmac for an hour waiting for a gate to open up (which happened to a friend recently in Newark and Seattle).  

Here's the situation one traveler found himself in when he recently boarded a flight from Los Angeles to Wyoming to see friends. 

"I sat rigid in my seat, and was aware of everything happening around me," he reported. "Simply put, I call it the C & S flight — Coughing and Sneezing. Everywhere. Every 4.3 minutes. Yes, I timed it."

Some argue that because the CDC never required pre-departure testing for domestic flights, it didn't make sense to require testing before boarding international flights. I'd counter that one bad decision doesn't justify another at a time the government is bracing for the pandemic’s "next wave" by asking for billions of dollars in Covid relief.

One prediction: Watch for airlines to equate the elimination of testing and masking requirements as a sign of downgraded risk. That could give them an opening to reinstate fees and penalties for cancelling or changing flights. The ability to change a flight, or cancel  and receive a credit has no doubt kept many sick people off planes. With Covid risks downplayed, how long will those policies stay in place? 

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