By Ben Baldanza, Former CEO Spirit Airlines
The U.S. Airlines’ primary lobby group, Airlines for America (A4A), along with other groups have asks governments to call for testing of passengers in place of using travel bans. Undoubtedly, travel bans have crippled airline demand around the world, so it is not surprising that this call comes from major airline support groups. Airlines are a primary driver of economic activity, and employ large numbers of people both directly and indirectly. So anything to reverse the current regulations that limit or ban travel outright would certainly help an industry that most agree needs a lot of help.
Yet as appealing and valiant as this effort is, testing on its own is not the best way to reverse travel limitation rules in place. This isn't likely to happen until there is wide spread distribution of proven vaccines.
The airline industry is in peril. Most airlines end their days with less cash than they start with, and while airlines have all built up their liquidity this position is not tenable. Delta Airlines recently announced that they hoped to be “cash neutral” by the second quarter, but caveated this suggesting they know this may not be the case. As long as airlines are losing cash everyday, the industry can not be considered out of the woods. Reducing quarantines and bans will help for sure, so it is not surprising that the industry’s primary lobby and others have called to replace these with testing.
Testing is important in the control of the virus’s spread. A test, however, is not a clear diagnosis but rather, as the Washington Post puts it, like a single clue at a point in time. There are false positives (testing positing when you do not have the virus) and false negatives (testing negative when you do have the virus). More importantly, testing negative at one point says nothing about what will happen later, which of course depends on what you do and where you could be exposed. Because of this, testing negative as a replacement to a ban or a quarantine does not provide the same protection in terms of limiting the the virus spread. It sounds appealing, and no doubt people would want everyone arriving by plane to have tested negative before they boarded. It is statistically possible, however, that at least some of those people would test positive in the next day or so.
Public policy in this area should be focused on quick and efficient rollout of the vaccine and diligent approaches to not make the problem worse in the meantime. People use “follow the science” to justify whatever position they think is best. The science proven to limit transmission comes back to basic mask wearing, hand washing, and avoiding crowds.
A better approach to return airline demand and get people moving again is a fast vaccine rollout, continued mask wearing until transmission rates are low, and overall diligence and awareness. Bans and quarantines are blunt instruments, but effective at the expense of limiting a lot of travel that would be safe. This expense is high, as the airline lobby points out, and effects many jobs and businesses. As difficult a position as the airlines are in, they still benefit from a moveable asset. Not many people are flying to New York right now, so put the planes where people are going. Most airlines are doing just that to keep employment as high as practical until we are out of this problem for good. Hotel operators and restaurants don’t have this ability. Airlines need to focus on what they can control and how they continue to engender confidence that flying is safe, once you have someplace to go. The bans and quarantines will go away soon enough.
This article originally appeared on Forbes