Administration considers COVID-19 tests for domestic flights

Airline industry and lawmakers from both parties have expressed concern that such a requirement would be costly and unnecessary

Travelers wait for COVID-19 testing in the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles in December. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Travelers wait for COVID-19 testing in the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles in December. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Posted February 8, 2021 at 4:12pm

Despite bipartisan concern about a proposal to require domestic air travelers to take a COVID-19 test before being permitted to board a flight, two Biden administration officials say the administration is still considering the idea.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, in separate appearances Sunday and Monday, both refused to rule out the idea of requiring all domestic air passengers to test negative for COVID-19 tests before flying. Currently, the CDC recommends passengers get tested before and after air travel and self-quarantine for seven days.  

All air passengers entering the United States from international destinations, meanwhile, are already required to present a negative COVID-19 test result or documentation of recovery.

“There's an active conversation with the CDC right now,” Buttigieg said Sunday in an appearance on “Axios by HBO."

“What I can tell you is it's going to be guided by data, by science, by medicine and by the input of the people who are actually going to have to carry this out," Buttigieg said of the decision-making process. "But here's the thing: 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.”

[Add unmet congressional mandates to Buttigieg’s plate]

Walensky said Monday at a White House COVID-19 response briefing that “first and foremost, I would really encourage people to not travel. But if we are traveling this would be yet another mitigation measure to try to decrease the spread.”

Their comments come days after a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing where witnesses and lawmakers criticized the idea, which the CDC first publicly mentioned during a press call in January.

Capacity

“I have concerns that the CDC is considering a national mandate that everyone have a COVID test before they fly,” said Committee Chair  Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore. “That would mean an immediate increase of at least 50 percent in daily testing capacity and I don’t know where that comes from.”

Republicans also objected to the idea. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., said imposing such tests could “punish this industry and stop it at its most critical time from being able to overcome what we’ve all gone through and especially the aviation industry over the last year.” 

Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., meanwhile, suggested such a requirement would spur people to take other modes of transportation such as bus or rail, and argued that such a plan could have an unfair impact on lower-income populations who might not be able to afford a quick test.

Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, called the proposal a “cosmetic" change that would hurt the airline business.

“The furloughs that we saw in October would be dwarfed by the furloughs we would see if we had a testing mandate that we can’t effectively run," she said. “It would be devastating and in that situation we wouldn’t just be talking about lost jobs, we would also likely be talking about airline bankruptcies.”

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