On Tuesday the Biden administration imposed fresh restrictions on travelers coming to the United States, with those flying in required to obtain a negative Covid test result before departure and then advised to quarantine for at least seven days upon arrival.
Although the quarantine is so far only a guideline, the White House says it is investigating how to ensure that travelers stick to it, working with the Department of Health and Department of Homeland Security to identify mechanisms to help with compliance.
This has prompted major backlash from the airlines industry, which points out that not only will the policy be disastrous for the travel sector, it will also be totally unenforceable.
Airlines for America, the industry group representing major U.S. airlines, says it hopes the Biden administration will realise that “testing can be used to safely resume travel without quarantines, which are difficult to enforce and often prove ineffective”.
It’s not difficult to see why. Short of Australian-style ‘quarantine hotels’ or the kind of GPS monitoring used in Taiwan (neither of which seem appealing) it would be utterly impossible to track the movements of the thousands of travelers who are still flying in to the United States every day.
In the UK, where travelers are required to quarantine for ten days upon arrival, only 20% of those coming into the country were found to fully comply with the rules. This is despite police enforcement and fines of over $1,300.
So if quarantines are not the answer, how can we make sure that flying stays safe?
Well as airlines themselves point out, testing is a far more convenient option to ensuring those entering the United States do not carry the coronavirus. PCR tests, like those already offered by American Airlines, are almost 100% effective in spotting infected people and are far easier to implement than mandatory quarantines.
The other – more longterm - solution is vaccination. By ensuring that airline workers themselves are vaccinated, the risk of the coronavirus entering or spreading on an aircraft becomes much lower.
As such, several major airlines are already calling on their staff to get vaccinated, with American Airlines, Delta and South West all issuing statements strongly encouraging their employees to get the jab if they are offered it. However, at present airline workers are not classified by the CDC as essential workers, so most staff are unlikely to be offered a vaccination for several months.
Rather than wasting time with quixotic quarantine measures, the government and the FAA should be prioritising vaccines for airline workers as a feasible and effective method for controlling the virus.
This reclassification would not only protect airline passengers but also reward essential frontline workers, who are playing a vital role in the distribution of the vaccine itself.