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Why Mandatory Testing For Domestic Flights Would Be A Mistake

The US Travel Association has called plans for testing domestic passengers "unworkable"

Barely a day after introducing strict testing protocols for international passengers, US airlines were dealt another potential hammer blow when news broke that the Biden administration was strongly considering extending testing requirements to domestic travelers as well.

Though neither the CDC nor the White House have yet confirmed plans to test domestic airline passengers for Covid-19, federal sources say the administration is “actively looking” into the possibility.

Officials have also not discussed the plans with airlines themselves, several of whom are having to consider additional furloughs, including American Airlines and United.

These plans evidently come at a very difficult time for the airline industry, which lost some $34 billion last year. However they are also immensely impractical and would unfairly focus restrictions on air travel, while ignoring other conduits of the disease. To do so would be a grave mistake for the Biden administration only a few weeks into its time in office.

Kicking Airlines While They’re Down

Additional testing requirements would inevitably have disastrous consequences for the airlines themselves, many of which are still reeling from the torment of 2020.

Despite Covid-19 cases coming down, the number of airline passengers still remains low, with the TSA screening just 774,688 passengers on the weekend of 29 January. In the same weekend in 2020 that figure was 2.2 million.

Year over year, total passenger numbers are down some 60%, and airlines have felt the pinch. Delta has so far lost $12 billion; United has lost $7.1 billion and Southwest has posted its first annual losses since 1972.

And while international testing has allowed many travellers to feel more confident about flying, domestic testing would only serve to limit the number of passengers who are able to take to the skies due to the limited number of tests available.

Jet Blue Airlines’ Chief Executive Robin Hayes claims his airline would have to increase its testing capacity by between 50 and 100% in order to screen its domestic passengers.

Likewise, Savi Syth, an airlines analyst for the investment bank Raymond James, predicts that additional testing requirements would only serve to diminish passenger numbers:

“In the short term a domestic testing requirement could further dampen travel demand and create confusion at a time when case counts are diminishing”.

This turmoil for airlines would then have a knock on effect for passengers, with industry group Airlines for America observing that domestic restrictions would be particularly hard felt by low-income travelers and rural Americans from small communities.

This is because the cost of Covid-19 testing could make even domestic travel prohibitively expensive for most Americans.

Totally Arbitrary…

As well as endangering the jobs and travel prospects of many thousands of Americans, Covid-19 testing for domestic airline passengers is needlessly arbitrary. It would focus our limited testing capacity on a very small section of American life, all-the-while allowing the disease to continue to spread by rail, road and sea.

As Southwest CEO Gary Kelly points out: “if you want to test them, test them, but test them before they go to the grocery store. Test them before they go to a restaurant”.

Focussing testing on domestic air travel unfairly singles out the airline industry, despite the risk for in-flight transmission of Covid-19 being incredibly low. It also puts greater pressure on airline staff, who are already struggling to enforce mandatory mask requirements and other safety measures.

Requiring a Covid test for domestic airline passengers would impose an unprecedented constraint on Americans’ freedom of movement and would make the US unique among western democracies for imposing such controls. Even during a pandemic, there is no evidential basis for enforcing this amount of constraint on personal liberties.

And Completely Impractical

Beyond merely being an unfair attack on the airline industry, domestic testing requirements also present an enormous practical challenge.

By March, industry experts expect close to 1 million people could be flying daily. The limited number of tests Covid available, and the huge variation in local testing capabilities has led the US Travel Association to label any plan for domestic passenger testing as “unworkable”.

It would also detract funding and manpower from more effective plans aimed at tackling the virus. As Gary Kelly again points out “Where our emphasis needs to be is on the two vaccines that are available and getting them rolled out and getting the country vaccinated, and I would hate for us to take our eye off that ball”.

The manpower and logistical expertise required to implement domestic testing would surely be better spent ensuring that vaccine deployment continues to run smoothly – in particular making sure that key workers such as airline staff receive their vaccines quickly.

To distract from these workable solutions with impractical testing regimens would not only be foolish but downright dangerous. In addition to hamstringing an already downtrodden industry, such measures run the risk of diverting tests from where they’re needed most.

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