Business Treaveler logo

Travel news, reviews and intel for high-flyers

CDC Rules Out Domestic Preflight Testing – For Now

The travel industry opposes a mandate, calling it “counterproductive” and “costly,” but Harvard research supports the idea

February 15, 2021

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not planning to require preflight COVID-19 tests for domestic air travelers – at least not at present.

“At this time, CDC is not recommending required point of departure testing for domestic travel,” the CDC said, according to a statement released Friday. “As part of our close monitoring of the pandemic, in particular the continued spread of variants, we will continue to review public health options for containing and mitigating spread of COVID-19 in the travel space.”

The possibility of preflight testing had been floated by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg during a Feb. 7 interview with Axios, when he mentioned a preflight testing mandate was part of an “active conversation” with the CDC.

According to reports from Reuters, the CDC announcement came Friday, Feb. 12, the same day Jeffrey Zients, the White House coronavirus task force director held a virtual meeting with leaders from the aviation industry, including executives from American Airlines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines and representatives of airline unions.

The industry has been vocal in its opposition to the idea. In a letter to President Joe Biden Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly and the leaders of the airline’s unions said such a mandate would be “counterproductive, costly, and have serious unintended consequences,” Reuters reports.

In a statement released after the meeting, Roger Dow, CEO of the US Travel Association, said based on January 2021 data, a testing requirement for domestic air travel would necessitate a 42 percent increase in daily testing capacity nationwide.

The high cost and low availability of testing make a domestic testing mandate “a challenging concept to put into practice,” Dow concluded.

In its statement, the CDC repeated its existing guidance to curtail all travel to limit the spread of COVID-19, but the agency offered no additional details about its decision to forego mandatory testing for domestic travelers.

The US already has a preflight testing requirement in place for all international arrivals. The rules, which went into effect Jan. 26, require all inbound travelers over the age of 2 to show negative COVID-19 test results prior to departure.

In addition, the Biden administration has issued a nationwide mask mandate for travelers on all public transit – planes, trains and buses – as well as at “any airport, bus terminal, marina, seaport or other port, subway station, terminal, train station, US port of entry, or any other location that provides transportation.” For air travelers, the new requirements are being enforced by the Transportation Security Administration, and may include fines of up to $1,500.

Although airline industry leaders may be fervently opposed to the idea of domestic testing, research from Harvard University suggests the idea of rapid testing of passengers before boarding may serve a “critical need” in identifying asymptomatic passengers and keeping them off planes, reducing the risk of transmission.

In a summary of the 262-page report released last week, researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found testing is a more effective measure than other methods, including temperature checks, which are done at some airports.

“Viral testing is an important public health screening mechanism that can quickly and efficiently identify those with infections and stop them from undergoing activities that could expose others, including potential travel,” the report advised.

Although the study endorsed testing, it also acknowledged the challenges of rolling out such a policy on a large scale. Specifically it focuses on rapid tests, including new testing methods that may still be in development, which could offer cheaper and more efficient ways get results than current diagnostic tests.

“The provision of rapid viral testing at airports requires careful attention to a realistic assessment of implementation, as well as sensitive matters of privacy, legal considerations and the logistical challenges of isolating and caring for newly identified positive cases,” the study’s summary concludes.

The Harvard research is the second of a two-part report from the Aviation Public Health Initiative funded by the aviation industry to assess the risks of flying during the coronavirus pandemic.

Phase one of the research,  which focused on the risks onboard the aircraft, was much-touted by the airline industry when it was released in October.

That report concluded that there is a low risk of SARS-COV-2 transmission on aircraft because of the frequent exchange of air and HEPA filters on planes, resulting in over 99 percent of the particles containing the virus being removed from cabin air.

In addition to its endorsement of rapid testing, the Harvard study suggests a number of other strategies as part of a “layered approach” to limit coronavirus spread from travel. Most important was continuing face mask mandates – which it described as a “first order measure to mitigate transmission” – even after vaccines become more widely available.