Why Delta’s CEO thinks mandatory COVID-19 testing for domestic flights is a ‘horrible idea’

Feb 10, 2021

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All travelers flying into the U.S. are now required to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test before boarding — but the Biden administration is also “actively looking” at mandating negative tests for domestic travel.

And the travel industry isn’t pleased.

In an interview with CNN, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian called the potential move a “horrible idea” that would not just “set the transportation industry back, but the whole hospitality sector.”

And in an interview with the Associated Press on Monday, Bastian said that travel — already still at low levels — would be “substantially reduced” if domestic testing were required.

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.

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Bastian isn’t alone in voicing his concerns about how potential test requirements for domestic travel could be a disaster for the industry and travelers.

Airlines for America (A4A), the industry trade organization for the leading U.S. airlines, released a statement in late January calling the potential move “unwarranted.” The airlines also said the action would “disproportionately prevent” low-income and rural Americans who may not have access to pre-travel testing from traveling.

“Given the strong scientific evidence that the risk of COVID-19 transmission [on board] an aircraft is very low,” A4A said in a letter to Jeffrey Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 recovery team coordinator, “we believe that a testing requirement for domestic air travel is unwarranted.”

TPG spoke to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg last week about the proposal, and while he didn’t rule it out, he also implied it’s not imminent.

“There’s a conversation underway with the CDC on that,” he said. “What I can tell you is that the guiding lights of that conversation will be a lot of engagement and dialogue and a lot of attention to evidence and data.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said that most viruses don’t spread easily on flights because of air circulation. However, the agency also noted that social distancing would be difficult on packed flights, and being in an enclosed space for hours “may increase” your risk of catching the virus.

Related: What it was like flying home now that the US requires a negative COVID-19 test

A CDC official told Reuters there are “conversations that are ongoing and looking at what the types and locations of testing might be. We’re actively looking at it.”

In President Biden’s first days in office, he introduced a mask mandate that requires masks to be worn while traveling domestically at airports, commercial aircraft, trains and public maritime vessels. The mask mandate also applies to intercity buses and on all forms of public transportation.

The U.S. government also issued new warnings to citizens about traveling internationally, saying that travelers should “reconsider nonessential travel abroad.”

Bottom line

There’s a lot we don’t know right now — including when a decision will finally be made one way or the other. We also don’t know how a domestic testing mandate would be enforced or what modes of transportation would be affected.

But we can look to states that currently require a negative test prior to entry, such as Alaska and Hawaii, for a sense of what a COVID-19 test mandate for domestic travel might look like.

Featured photo by Daniel Slim / AFP via Getty Images

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