After repeated pleas from airlines and international travel partners, the Biden Administration finally lifted COVID testing requirements for entry into the United States. Is it just in time to give summer travel a shot in the arm—or too little, too late?
Until an unnamed ‘senior Administration official’ announced its end, the COVID testing requirement for travelers planning to enter the United States had been in place since January 2021. The testing requirement was for both international travelers and Americans seeking to return to the US. Both vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers had to test.
Travelers were required to take a COVID test (and obviously, test negative) within 24 hours of flying. Otherwise, they had to rebook, stay overseas until they tested negative, and hopefully fly later.
But said the mysterious senior administration official, according to The Hill, “CDC has determined based on the science and data that this requirement is no longer necessary at this time.”
Whether the testing requirement limited the spread of COVID, which has infected 85 million Americans (including this writer) can be debated. What seems clear is that the uncertainty factor (can I really fly to the US on the date I booked?) stopped millions of American and international travelers from flying.
As Ellen Bettridge, President & CEO of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, a provider of luxury European river cruises, put it, “Since the start of the pandemic, our U.S. customers expressed that the testing requirement for re-entry is the number one thing holding them back from traveling internationally, and we’re thrilled that this barrier has been lifted.”
The CDC website currently reads “Before boarding a flight to the United States, you are required to show a negative COVID-19 test result taken no more than 1 day before travel. There is also an option for people who have documented recovery from COVID-19 in the past 90 days. Children under 2 years old do not need to test.”
The change is said to be effective starting at 12:01AM Sunday, June 12. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can reevaluate the decision in three months. When a US Federal judge struck down the CDC mask mandate for US flyers, the Biden Administration made noises about suing to overturn the decision. To date it has not done so.
Airline officials had long been advocating to end the pre-flight testing. Delta CEO Ed Bastian pointing out that many other countries did not require testing on arrival.
So, both the airlines and the hotel industries were understandably ecstatic when the testing requirement was struck.
Industry trade group Airlines for America CEO and President Nick Calio said, “We are eager to welcome the millions of travelers who are ready to come to the US for vacation, business and reunions with loved ones.”
“Today’s announcement is a significant win for hotels and the broader travel industry,” said American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) President & CEO Chip Rogers. He added, “AHLA consistently called on the Administration and Congress to lift this testing requirement, which was out of date and had a chilling effect on inbound international travel to the U.S.”
Rogers pointedly thanked a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators, including each senator from tourist meccas Nevada and Florida, in pushing for the change. He noted, “Lifting the requirement will make travel easier, facilitating more international visitors and helping hotels continue on the road to recovery, especially as we approach peak travel season this summer.”
The question is whether the change comes in time to salvage the summer travel season. Journalists keep floating the concept of “revenge travel,” getting back what we’ve missed during the pandemic.
Domestic travel is almost back to where it was, although airlines have a shortage of pilots and hundreds of flights have been dropped from the schedule. Meanwhile, thousands of cancellations and delays have made travel painful. No wonder airline stocks have taken a beating.
International travel, a significant contributor to airline revenues, is still underwater. Airlines for America says in May, international air travel to and from the US remained 24% below 2019 levels.
And while Las Vegas has nearly returned to previous levels, international visitation still lags. So does hotel occupancy (84% in April 2022 vs 91% in April 2019) and convention visitors (377,000 in April 2022, down from 529,000 in April 2019.)
With the cost of flights, fuel and hotel rooms rocketing upward due to inflation, can the travel industry still pull off a summer comeback?
Uniworld Boutique River Cruises hopes to spark demand with a two-for-one sale. The travel provider is offering two guests for the price of one fares across 20 of its all-inclusive itineraries on Europe’s rivers through a 2022 Friends & Family Sale. For example, the S.S. La Venezia goes through northern Italy, including the Venetian Lagoon now only accessible by small ship, on the Venice & The Gems of Northern Italy.
Meanwhile, international airlines like LEVEL and French Bee fight for US customers with low-cost flights to Barcelona and Paris.
Whatever happens to travel volume this summer, ending pre-flight COVID testing may offer passengers much more peace of mind.