The Latest on COVID-19: Airlines Push Back Against Testing for Domestic Flights
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The Latest on COVID-19: Airlines Push Back Against Testing for Domestic Flights

Editor’s Note: This post will be regularly updated with the latest news and updates on the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on travel. Scroll down or click for previous updates and stay tuned for additional coverage. 

 

Airlines Push Back Against Mandatory Testing for Domestic Flights

Thursday, Feb. 11 at 7 a.m.
Leaders of the nation’s largest airlines and industry groups are urging the Biden administration not to follow through with testing mandate for domestic travel, calling it a “horrible” and unnecessary policy that would further cripple the travel industry.

The Biden administration has been weighing new restrictions on domestic flights and travel for weeks since taking office. While the U.S. has added many new restrictions on international travel and some individual states like Hawaii and Alaska have imposed testing requirements for entry, domestic air travel has continued with few overarching restrictions.

It’s still unclear if a testing mandate will happen, but top federal officials have made clear this week it’s under serious consideration.

“There’s an active convo within the CDC right now. What I can tell you is it’s going to be guided by data, science, medicine, and by the input of the people who are actually going to have to carry this out,” new Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told Axios on HBO. “The safer we can make air travel, in terms of perception as well as reality, the more people are going to be ready to get back in the air.”

But airlines don’t see it that way. One by one, CEOs from airlines like Delta, American, and Southwest have sounded the alarm about the prospect of mandatory testing for flights within the states.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian called it a “horrible idea” in an interview with CNN this week, saying it would set back the already hurting travel industry even further while doing little to curtail the spread of COVID-19. While some industry-backed studies have shown little evidence of transmission onboard planes, others have shown air travel clearly contributes to the spread of COVID-19.

“It would also take probably about 10% of the testing resources that this country needs to do to test sick people away from these people,” Bastian said. “I think it would be a logistical nightmare.”

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly also wrote a letter to the White House pleading not to impose a testing requirement.

“We believe such a mandate would be counterproductive, costly, and have serious unintended consequences, including for millions of people who have travel needs but may not have access to testing resources and for the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on a stable air travel industry,” Kelly wrote.

Read all our coverage of traveling and the coronavirus.

 

Canada Halts All Flights to Mexico, Caribbean. Could the U.S. Too?

Friday, Jan. 29 at 12:10 p.m.
Canada will suspend all commercial flights to Mexico and the Caribbean until at least May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday as part of a sweeping set of restrictions on international travel.

Countries around the globe are imposing new travel restrictions, trying to keep fast-spreading strains of COVID-19 at bay and buy time until vaccines are widespread. Just this week, the U.S. began requiring a negative COVID-19 before all international flights to the U.S. – including American citizens returning from abroad.

But Canada’s new measures go even further. In addition to Canada’s longstanding ban on allowing travelers from foreign countries, the country’s airlines have agreed to suspend all flights to and from Mexico and the Caribbean starting this Sunday through at least April 30, CTV News reports. Canadian travelers returning from elsewhere abroad will be required to take a COVID-19 test and quarantine for at least three days at a designated hotel – at their own expense.

“With the challenges we currently face with COVID-19 … now is just not the time to be flying,” Trudeu said. “By putting in place these tough measures now, we can look forward to a better time when we can all plan those vacations.”

Canada’s shutdown of travel to Mexico and the Caribbean raises a massive question: Could the U.S. do the same?

While the pandemic has decimated travel across the board, trips to Mexico and other beach destinations in Latin America have continued. The new testing requirements (and possible mandatory quarantines) for international travel was likely targeted at curbing those trips, some of the few international destinations Americans are still traveling to.

“What if I’ve Had COVID?” & More Questions About International Travel Testing Rules

The Biden administration has even raised the prospect of requiring tests before domestic travel. But airlines have pushed back, arguing these new restrictions are ruinous for an industry already pushed to its breaking point.

Read more: We Will Travel Again … But it Will Get Harder in the Meantime

Stopping flights between the U.S. and Latin America would be unprecedented – especially for America’s airline industry, which has vast lobbying power. The Biden administration may be watching how its new testing requirements for international travel play out – while keeping a close eye on its neighbor to the north as even more stringent measures take hold.

 

Biden Administration Pledges to Keep Travel Bans in Place

Tuesday, Jan. 19 at 8 a.m.
Incoming President Joe Biden’s administration says it will keep longstanding travel bans on Europe, the United Kingdom, and Brazil in place after taking office this week, contradicting an announcement from President Donald Trump’s office as he exits the White House.

Trump’s White House announced late Monday that it planned to drop those travel bans on Jan. 26 – the same day that new testing requirements for international flights to the U.S. take effect, and nearly a week after Trump leaves office. Those bans have been in place since the COVID-19 pandemic first upended travel last spring, banning most foreign residents from coming to the U.S. from those countries. Going the other way, most Americans are still banned from visiting much of Europe.

But within hours, the incoming Biden administration made clear it had no plans to lift those travel bans.

“On the advice of our medical team, the Administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26,” Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki said on Twitter. In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

“With the pandemic worsening, and more contagious variants emerging around the world, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel,” Psaki also said.

With Biden scheduled to be inaugurated Wednesday, there’s plenty of time to undo the Trump administration’s order lifting those travel bans. It’s unclear when Biden may choose to eventually lift those bans, but Biden’s team made clear that additional restrictions or safeguards on international travel may also be put in place.

The back-and-forth between incoming and outgoing presidents marks a whirlwind over international travel regulations recently. Just last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the new testing requirement for all inbound flights to the U.S. – including for returning citizens.

 

How U.S. Airlines Are Preparing for More Unrest in the Skies

Friday, Jan. 15 at 9 a.m.
U.S. airlines and aviation regulators are preparing for more trouble in the skies over Washington, D.C. in the next week ahead of the inauguration President-elect Joe Biden.

After viral videos of unruly flyers heading to Washington before riots at the Capitol last week – and even more footage of passengers getting kicked off flights before heading home – the Federal Aviation Administration is taking a zero-tolerance approach to in-flight disruptions. The agency warned this week that any passenger who interferes with, threatens, or physically assaults the flight crew will face jail times or fines of up to $35,000.

But airlines are going to extraordinary lengths on their own to avoid problems, too.

One-by-one, most of the nation’s largest airlines have said they’ll ban firearms in checked luggage on flights to and from Washington, D.C.-area airports. Those bans on Delta, United, American, Alaska, and Southwest last from Jan. 16 through Jan. 23.

Alaska Airlines has gone farther than any other airline by requiring that all passengers stay seated for a full 60 minutes before landing at Washington, D.C.-area airports – and 60 minutes after takeoff, too. That’s similar to the policies many airlines implemented after the terror attacks on Sept. 11. And the airline is even capping ticket sales on flights to the nation’s capital.

Delta has asked passengers with travel to D.C. scheduled over the next week to reconsider their plans. American Airlines has suspended all alcohol service on flights to and from the capital. And across the board, airlines have said they’ll increase staffing on flights and in airports to handle any issues.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian told investors on Thursday that it has banned “a number” of unruly passengers flying home from Washington, D.C. after the riots last week. And he told the Associated Press that it has banned several passengers captured heckling Utah Sen. Mitt Romney in the airport last week.

“There are six people, and they will never fly Delta again,” Bastian said. “They have already been notified.”

Read all our coverage of traveling and the coronavirus.

 

Flight Attendant Union Calls to Ban Some Pro-Trump Rioters

Thursday, Jan. 7 at 7:30 a.m.
As rioters supporting President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, the nation’s largest flight attendants union called to ban them from flights after rowdy pro-Trump supporters caused disturbances on flights as hundreds flocked to Washington, D.C. this week.

A Delta flight from Salt Lake City (SLC) full of Trump supporters heading to the nation’s capital was captured yelling “Traitor!” repeatedly at Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, who was onboard. American Airlines kicked several Trump supporters heading to Washington D.C. off flights over failure to comply with mask mandates. One video shows another a raucous American Airlines flight, with several Trump supporters screaming, one projecting a Trump logo on the cabin ceiling, and a man threatening to “wipe out” people.
 

 

The head of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International – which represents more than 50,000 flight attendants at airlines like United, Alaska, and others – called the behavior a “mob mentality” and a safety risk for employees and passengers alike.

“The mob mentality behavior that took place on several flights to the D.C. area yesterday was unacceptable and threatened the safety and security of every single person onboard. It will not happen again,” Sara Nelson said in a statement. “Acts against our democracy, our government, and the freedom we claim as Americans must disqualify these individuals from the freedom of flight.”

Airlines have banned hundreds of passengers over refusal to wear masks, but Nelson’s call is unprecedented. It’s unclear exactly how those passengers might be banned, but Nelson called on airlines, the TSA, and federal regulators to “take all steps to ensure the safety and security of passengers and crew by keeping all problems on the ground.”

Already, airlines are bracing for more difficulty in the skies. American Airlines says it is increasing staffing at Washington, D.C. area airports and will stop serving alcohol on flights to and from the capital, CNN reports.

 

U.S. Airlines Want to Scrap Travel Bans, Increase Testing

Tuesday, Jan. 5 at 7:45 a.m.
A group of the nation’s largest airlines is pushing President Donald Trump’s administration to drop travel bans on the European Union, the U.K., and Brazil, favoring a new global COVID-19 testing requirement for international travelers coming to the U.S. instead.

Airlines for America made that case in a letter to Vice President Mike Pence this week first reported by Reuters. The industry trade group represents American Airlines, Delta, United, Southwest, JetBlue, and others.

“We believe a well-planned program focused on increasing testing of travelers to the United States will further these objectives in a much more effective way than the blanket travel restrictions currently in place,” the letter said.

The U.S. has banned most non-citizens from entering the country from Europe, the U.K., and Ireland since March – and Brazil since May. But the Trump administration has considered lifting these bans, which would allow some international travel to resume more freely. Most Americans are still currently banned from visiting much of Europe.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also backed expanding testing requirements for international travelers coming to the U.S. But the U.S. has struggled with widespread testing, and it’s unclear how the airlines’ proposal would seek to change that.

The U.S. only recently introduced mandatory testing for travelers arriving from Great Britain amid the scare surrounding a faster-spreading variant of the virus.

 

Dozens of Countries Ban Flights from the U.K.

Monday, Dec. 21 at 7:30 a.m.
Dozens of countries, from Colombia to Canada and Italy to India, have banned travel from the United Kingdom as it grapples with a new strain of COVID-19 feared to be much more contagious.

As of Monday morning, nearly 40 countries had banned travel from the U.K. as it entered lockdown over the weekend, leading to hundreds of flight cancellations. The new strain of COVID-19 is spreading up to 70% faster than previous iterations of the virus, the Wall Street Journal reports, driving a surge in cases in London and elsewhere across the country.

While the evolving virus is not believed to be more deadly, it caused alarm about spreading to new countries across the globe. Canada, Italy, Israel, Germany, Russia, France, Sweden, Finland, Morocco, Switzerland, Colombia, and other countries have enacted temporary bans on travel from the U.K.

But the U.S. hasn’t yet joined that list – and top U.S. health officials have suggested it’s unlikely to.

“I really don’t believe we need to do that yet,” Adm. Brett Giroir said on ABC News’ “This Week.” Adm. Girior said the new virus mutation was localized within the U.K., adding, “We have not seen a single (virus) mutation yet that would make it evade the vaccine.”

The U.S. still bans most non-residents from coming into the country from Europe – a provision in place since early March. The U.K. has allowed American travelers to enter the country for months but requires a 14-day quarantine.

Those policies mean some Americans and other essential workers will be allowed to continue flying from the U.K. to the U.S. unless the Trump administration bans travel.

 

United Confirms Man with COVID-19 Died Mid-Flight

Friday, Dec. 18 at 11:30 a.m.
United Airlines has confirmed that a man diagnosed with COVID-19 died in the middle of the flight earlier this week, forcing the airline to divert and causing an outbreak scare for other passengers on the flight.

The story of the man’s death on the United flight scheduled to fly from Orlando (MCO) to Los Angeles (LAX) on Monday evening went viral on social media. Passengers onboard that flight claimed the man lost consciousness mid-flight and was later declared dead after diverting and being taken to a hospital in New Orleans (MSY). One passenger said the man’s wife told first responders that he had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and had lost his sense of taste and smell.

At the time of the incident, United said it could not confirm whether the man, whose age was not disclosed, had COVID-19. But United told View from the Wing on Friday the man was, in fact, suffering from COVID-19.

“At the time of the diversion, we were informed he had suffered a cardiac arrest, so passengers were given the option to take a later flight or continue on with their travel plans,” the airline said in a statement. “Now that the CDC has contacted us directly, we are sharing requested information with the agency so they can work with local health officials to conduct outreach to any customer the CDC believes may be at risk for possible exposure or infection.”

It’s unclear how many other passengers were on the flight and thus were potentially exposed to the virus. Troublingly, United continued the flight from New Orleans to Los Angeles on the same plane on which the man had died, according to multiple passenger accounts.

Like most other major airlines, United requires passengers to certify that they have not been diagnosed with or exposed to COVID-19 during the check-in process. The deceased man appears to have lied, and U.S. airlines do not require pre-flight COVID-19 testing for domestic trips. Just one airline, Frontier, checks passenger temperatures before boarding.

While studies have shown COVID-19 transmission to be relatively rare on airplanes thanks to air filtration systems and other health safeguards, that hinges on travelers making smart decisions. If you are suffering from any symptoms or have been diagnosed with or potentially exposed to COVID-19, please do not travel.

This week’s death isn’t even the first COVID-19 death on a plane in the U.S. A woman died of COVID-19 in the middle of a Spirit Airlines flight from Las Vegas (LAS) to Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) in July.
 

One Airline Creates a Special Seating Section for Anti-Maskers

Thursday, Dec. 17 at 7:30 a.m.
Russian flag carrier Aeroflot is setting up a special section at the back of the plane to move passengers who refuse to wear a mask after boarding.

Russia has a nationwide mask mandate, and Aeroflot explicitly requires masks onboard all its flights. The airline recently announced it would ban travelers from boarding its flights without a mask.

But once in-flight, The Moscow Times reports that Aeroflot will move travelers to a special section of the plane if they refuse to keep a mask on. The airline has blocked off the last two rows of economy on the right side of the plane for offenders.

“Dedicated seats are provided for passengers who refuse to use masks after the doors are closed,” an airline spokesperson confirmed.

Aeroflot is a partner of Delta Air Lines and a member of the SkyTeam airline alliance.

It’s unclear if travelers refusing to wear a mask after takeoff has been a problem for Aeroflot. But many months after U.S. airlines made masks mandatory this spring, compliance remains an issue.

Delta says it has banned more than 700 flyers for refusing to wear a mask onboard. High-profile cases of travelers skirting the rules on board – some of whom seemed determined to cause a scene – have gone viral.

Most recently, a Colorado family was kicked off a United flight last week because their 2-year-old daughter wouldn’t wear a mask. Like most other airlines, United requires all travelers 2 and older to wear a mask.
 

United Plans to Start Contact Tracing for Domestic, International Flights

Wednesday, Dec. 16 at 8 a.m.
United Airlines plans to start a voluntary contact tracing program on both international and domestic flights, outdoing Delta’s first-ever contact tracing effort announced earlier this month.

United announced on Wednesday its plan to partner with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) begin collecting passenger contact information later this week. Like Delta, it’s a voluntary effort: Passengers will be asked opt in and provide information like their email address, phone number, and an address at their final destination on the United smartphone app, on its website, and at the airport.

But while United by matching Delta’s effort to collect information on international arrivals, United plans to eventually gather information on all domestic flights “in the weeks ahead,” too. The Chicago-based airline calls it “the airline industry’s most comprehensive public health contact information collection program to date.”

“Initiatives like testing and contact tracing will play a significant role in slowing the spread of COVID-19 until a vaccine is widely available,” United’s Chief Customer Officer Toby Enqvist said in a statement.

While commonplace elsewhere across the globe, contact tracing efforts have been stymied in the U.S. – and airlines are no exception. Federal contact tracers tracking the possible spread of COVID-19 cases in travel currently have to ask airlines to hand over passenger manifests to track down fellow passengers that may have been exposed.

By setting up their own voluntary programs and passing information onto the CDC, Delta and United should streamline the process of contacting nearby passengers in the case of a possible COVID-19 infection during a flight.

But these airline efforts are voluntary, meaning their effectiveness will hinge on how many travelers decide to give out their information. Reuters reported this summer that an effort to require airlines to collect contact tracing information fizzled out over airline objections surrounding data privacy and difficulty collecting that information.
 

Family Kicked Off United Flight After Toddler Won’t Wear Mask

Monday, Dec. 14 at 8 a.m.
A family set to fly from Denver to Newark (EWR) with United Airlines over the weekend was removed from the flight after their 2-year-old daughter would not wear a face mask.

Eliz Orban’s video of the episode went viral, as she tearfully explains getting removed from the Friday flight “because our 2 year old would not ‘comply'” with United’s mask mandate. Like nearly all major U.S. airlines, United requires all travelers 2 and older to wear a face covering during the flight and many areas throughout the airport.

Orban, a fitness coach in Colorado, has since made her Instagram account private. But she also posted the video to Twitter, where it has racked up nearly 5 million views.
 

 

The video shows the toddler’s father struggling to put a surgical mask on his daughter before a United flight attendant asks the family to grab their belongings and leave the plane.

“We gave you an opportunity,” the flight attendant says as the father protests, saying he’s holding a face covering over his daughter’s face. The father’s own face mask is shown underneath his nose.

Orban told Fox News that a member of the flight crew asked how old their daughter was during boarding and, because she was over 2 years old, said she would be required to wear a face mask. Orban said they were given a mask because they did not have one for their daughter.

“We felt like we got no warning, no working with us, no asking questions, nothing to help in the situation,” Orban said of the ordeal.

United’s website clearly warns that all travelers 2 years and older are required to wear a mask onboard. There are reminders throughout the flight booking process. United has said Orban’s family will not be banned from flying with them, but defended the decision to remove them from the flight.
 

united mask policy 

All U.S. airlines have required face masks onboard since at least May, and they’ve ratcheted up their policies by threatening to ban those who don’t comply and weeding out phony medical exemptions. And United is not alone in drawing a hard line that all travelers 2 and older must wear a mask: American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Southwest, and JetBlue all have identical policies.

Only Delta carves out a potential exemption for kids who struggle to keep a mask on: “Children under the age two and young children who cannot maintain a face covering are exempt from the mask requirement.”
 

21 Responses

  • Hi: How do you see the corona virus situation impacting long-term airline tickets prices? Do you think they might increase? I’ve been checking airfares and find them to be about the same price.

    • Short-term, there’s definitely some price-cutting going on in a targeted way – on select routes, by select carriers. Long-term, it’s just too early to say.

  • I am a USA citizen currently touristing Palawan Island, Philippines. We have tickets to fly out through Manila. However, now all flights are on lockdown and we can not go in or out of Manila. Our USA visa is only good for 30-days. The airport lockdown goes well past our time to leave. What happen when our US visa time runs out and we are locked out of flying?

  • AA will not waive their $150 fee to redeposit my miles to my account. Where are you getting the information that they are waiving their fees?

  • Can I begin my paperwork process for Global Entry now, or is that also on hold? If o can apply how long will the info be kept before I get to interview or come back into the US from an international flight in 2021 & complete the process at that time? Thank you

    • You can apply and may even reach the “conditional approval” stage during this shutdown, but you won’t be able to secure an interview any time soon. And you’re required to complete that interview within 1 year of being conditionally approved, so it’s probably best to just wait a bit.

      • I applied for Global Entry in February and am still in “Pending Review”. Hope it gets done before February 17 next year.

  • Kyle,
    We have airline tickets to Barcelona on Canada Air in May. We used rewards miles. We’ve been waiting to see if the flights would be cancelled and are hoping to recoup the miles. Is this likely in light of the travel ban to Spain? Thanks.

    • It certainly seems like it. Keep in touch with Air Canada and monitor your reservation. Depending on how you booked, you may even be able to cancel now and get your miles & taxes/fees back even before the airline itself cancels.

  • I liked the SWA CEO’s idea of temperature screening in mass even though it is not a perfect deterrent or predictor of Covid 19. I think it would make more sense for each airport to do this temporary screening for next two years. I don’t like standing in those stanchion lines close to people waiting to be screened. Airports could hire temporary people at the entry doors- best place to stop them. This may mean fewer entry doors or some doors being only for exiting. Prefer the local approach as we lose so much money with TSA program. That way the airlines and airport businesses would pay for it much like many parking lots are paid for. We do pay for airport parking here, but it is subsidized. Door entry screening will increase public confidence in air travel.

  • I personally would not get into an Uber or Lyft that I cannot see their face. If something happens and I cannot identify you…yeah no thanks lol

  • Can you book first class east bound to Europe and return economy? Or must you book first class both ways?

    • You can always book two one-way flights separately – just beware that it might be fairly expensive to do so.

  • Kyle, 6 emails and 7 phone calls to multiple Spanish Embassy/Consulates locations in the US last week resulted in ONE reply telling my client to contact the Embassy by email. He’s leaving for Spain this week, and of course, has not received a reply. How are we going to know if the EU bans US travelers BEFORE they leave. The airline tells me it’s the travelers responsibility to know the rules. If I can find the rules, how is my client going to find them?

  • In all honesty, there is no reason for Delta to continue to block seats. While the thought is nice (80 segments already this year with them), you cannot socially distance on a plane, without having every other row, and really only window seats filled (in narrow body planes). I believe that United and AA are not blocking any seats anymore.

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