“A real goat rodeo.”
Southwest Airlines’ top two executives had choice words Thursday about mandatory COVID-19 testing on flights within the U.S., a policy the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week said is under consideration.
And they weren’t alone.
The president of JetBlue Airways bluntly said the airline doesn’t support the measure.
The CEO of American Airlines took a more diplomatic stance but said testing all passengers would be difficult and “would have us testing Americans on airplanes that we all know are safe to be on.”
The airline officials, asked about the CDC proposal by Wall Street analysts and reporters on their earnings conference calls Thursday, said they didn’t have much, if any, information on what’s on the table.
“It’s not clear if, when, what, how we’d be asked to do that,” Southwest Airlines President Tom Nealon said.
“It hasn’t been floated to us,” American CEO Doug Parker said. “We haven’t heard anything directly from regulators or others about that possibility.”
Parker and others have said they supported the addition of COVID testing on international flights to the U.S. because it was seen as a way to reopen international borders. Industry officials had hoped the new testing regime would result in a reduction in quarantines and other international travel restrictions, especially for Europe travel, but those have not yet been relaxed.
The prospect of domestic testing was raised in a media briefing on Tuesday with Dr. Martin Cetron, director of the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine.
His comments came the same day a COVID testing requirement went into effect for all passengers boarding international flights to the U.S. Travelers will be denied boarding unless they provide a negative test result taken no more than three days prior to their flight or show proof of recovery from COVID-19 in the past three months.
On Wednesday, new CDC director Rochelle Walensky, appeared to double down on the idea of mandatory testing on domestic flights during a CNN interview with Anderson Cooper.
Walensky said there is money in the budget to boost the availability of COVID-19 tests, with much of it designated for testing in schools.
“But I would like to really see much of that budget, and I think the Biden administration (does) as well, to use it for high-risk activities, and one of those high-risk activities would be for travel and domestic flights.”
Despite talk of new testing to help fight the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the CDC and the U.S. State Department have a more urgent message for Americans: don’t travel at all.
“I want to emphasize that now is not the time to be traveling period, internationally or domestically,” Walensky said.
Here are the reasons airlines cite for opposing or expressing concern about COVID-19 testing on US flights
Lack of tests
JetBlue President Joanna Geraghty said COVID-19 testing slots in many parts of the country are scarce and results can take days.
“When you start thinking about a framework that‘s already overburdened and you add domestic travel into that, this puts a ton of pressure on an already fragile system.”
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said he thinks mandatory testing “would be a mistake” because of testing access and the costs of administering the tests.
“I just think it’s wholly impractical,” he said.
Kelly said the focus should be on the rollout of the COVID vaccines.
“I would hate for us to take our eye off that ball,” he said.
It’s not fair to single out airlines
Kelly suggested mandated testing for airline passengers would “pick on travel.”
“If you want to test people, test them,” he said. “But test them before they go to the grocery store. Test them before they go to restaurants. Test them before they go to a sporting event.”
He and JetBlue’s Geraghty noted that air travel is just one mode of transportation, with trains and road trips also carrying travelers across the country.
“People need to travel. They’ll figure out a way to get there. They’ll figure out a way to see Mom, Dad,” Geraghty said. “And,frankly, putting this burden on air travel is, we think, far too cumbersome.”
Ticket bookings will take a hit
As evidenced by billions of dollars in losses in 2020 and a relatively weak outlook for the first few months of 2021, airlines are struggling to fill planes. A testing requirement on flights within the country would prompt some travelers to cancel planned trips and hurt future bookings, airlines say.
There is already evidence that is happening in Mexico and other countries since the international testing requirement was announced on Jan. 12 as travelers don’t want to risk not being able to find a test or testing positive and being stranded at their own expense.
If any domestic restrictions are proposed, Parker said, “we certainly would want to make sure it’s not something that would restrict demand.”
A logistical nightmare
With international travel already severely restricted due to global travel reservations, there are far fewer international flights to the U.S. than flights within the U.S.
Airlines say gearing up for mandatory testing requirements would be a big challenge. Airlines and international airports were more prepared for the CDC’s international testing requirement because there are already several processes in place to check documents needed for international flights, before and during the pandemic.
“We have real concerns about this,” Geraghty said. “We are open to reasonable measures, but we don’t believe a domestic-testing regime is feasible given the existing framework.”
Southwest’s Nealon said it would be important to have streamlined policies across airlines, airports and cities, which would require a big technology push so passengers aren’t confused.
“I think, as we say in Texas, that could be a real goat rodeo,” he said.
Too much additional stress on employees
Geraghty said airline workers don’t need anything else on their to-do list during the pandemic.
“We already have them as the mask police. We already have them as the social distance police,” she said. “Adding document checks and testing validations put them, frankly, in an untenable position and in an environment where we’re trying to promote social distancing.”