The leaders of all the largest U.S. airlines united this week to call on President Joe Biden administration's to immediately end the federal mask mandate for air travel and repeal the longstanding rule requiring all travelers to get a negative COVID-19 test to fly to the U.S. from abroad.
Under the banner of industry trade group Airlines for America, chief executives from the nation's largest airlines – including Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, United, and several major cargo carriers – signed onto a Wednesday letter to Biden pleading their case to end what they called “a patchwork of now-outdated regulations.” After applauding the Biden administration's handling of the pandemic, the executives argued that declining COVID-19 cases and the widespread availability of vaccines have made masking and international testing requirements unnecessary. And the CEOs stressed that its frontline airline employees like flight attendants are the ones tasked with enforcing those restrictions.
“Now is the time for the Administration to sunset federal transportation travel restrictions – including the international pre-departure testing requirement and the federal mask mandate – that are no longer aligned with the realities of the current epidemiological environment,” the CEOs wrote in the letter on Wednesday. “We are requesting this action not only for the benefit the of the traveling public, but also for the thousands of airline employees charged with enforcing a patchwork of now-outdated regulations implemented in response to COVID-19.”
You can read their full letter on Airlines for America's website.
There was no quick response from the Biden administration to Wednesday's letter, nor any signs that immediate action to lift or change travel restrictions was coming.
Earlier this month, the Biden administration extended the federal mask mandate in airplanes and airports by another month, out to at least April 18. In making that extension, federal agencies signaled the days of mandatory masking on planes may be coming to an end. But even as other countries from Canada to the United Kingdom drop pre-travel testing requirements for fully vaccinated travelers, the U.S. hasn't budged: Even fully vaccinated American citizens still must have a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than one calendar day before flying back to the U.S.
Wednesday's letter marks the shifting ground for airlines, which until now have stayed publicly quiet about pandemic travel policies surrounding. In a first for a major U.S. airline, Delta echoed the call to end travel restrictions with its own statement.
“Considering the improved public health metrics in the U.S. and medical advancements to prevent the worst outcomes of COVID-19, the federal mask mandate and pre-departure testing no longer fits with the current environment,” CEO Ed Bastian said in a statement. “Current data and science show it’s time to move from mandates to guidance and personal health choices.”
As similar travel restrictions fade away across the globe, airlines are cranking up the pressure to follow suit at a tricky time. Public health officials have been warning about another possible increase in COVID-19 cases due to a subvariant of Omicron. The emergence of the Omicron variant last fall was what led Biden's administration to tighten international testing requirements, giving travelers just one calendar day to secure a negative test instead of the previous three-day window.
First implemented in January 2021 soon after Biden took office, that policy has kept international travel at bay throughout the pandemic even as countries reopened their borders to Americans. The stress of finding a test abroad – and, most importantly, the prospect of being forced to quarantine for a week or more in a foreign country – has scared many travelers off from a big international trip.
Fortunately, the U.S. has given travelers plenty of options to get a test by also allowing rapid antigen tests, including select at-home COVID test kits with a supervised telehealth appointment. But as other countries drop their own testing measures, the U.S. rules increasingly look out-of-step.
And airline CEOs stress out that even stricter testing measures failed to curb the spread of COVID-19 this winter, when the new Omicron variant caused the biggest spike in COVID-19 cases recorded throughout the pandemic.
“The U.S. inconsistency with these practices creates a competitive disadvantage for U.S. travel and tourism by placing an additional cost and burden on travel to the U.S. Further, many outbound travelers are not willing to risk being stranded overseas,” the executives wrote.
After a monthlong extension out to mid-April, the airlines argued that travelers should be allowed to choose whether to wear a mask – especially with higher quality masks more readily available than when the mask mandate was first implemented back in early 2021.
The airline executives pointed to the toll enforcing these measures has taken on frontline employees, who are typically charged with double-checking valid test results for international travelers and policing mask usage onboard flights – sometimes with poor results.
“It is critical to recognize that the burden of enforcing both the mask and pre-departure testing requirements has fallen on our employees for two years now,” the airlines wrote. “This is not a function they are trained to perform and subjects them to daily challenges by frustrated customers.”