Airlines Balk at Potential Coronavirus Testing for Domestic Flights

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Airlines Balk at Potential Coronavirus Testing for Domestic Flights

The yearlong coronavirus pandemic has been especially brutal for U.S. airlines.

A senior official from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed earlier this week that the Joe Biden administration is seriously considering mandatory coronavirus tests for all passengers before they board domestic flights.

The news, however, did not sit well with financially struggling U.S. airlines.

“Why pick on air travel?” Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said during the company’s quarterly earnings call on Thursday.

“If you want to test people, test them, but test them before they go to the grocery store. Test them before they go to a restaurant. Test them before they go to a sporting event.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Travel Association, an industry group that represents large hotel chains, Airbnb, and several airports, contended on Wednesday that such a plan would likely fail because testing availability across the country can vary greatly.

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker seemed to share similar sentiment.

Mandatory testing for domestic flights seems “like something that would both be difficult and would have us testing Americans on airplanes that we all know are safe to be on,” he said Thursday during the company’s earnings call.

“We’ll obviously work with the administration on what they think makes sense … but also let them know what kind of impact that would have on travel.”

On a call with reporters, Dr. Marty Cetron, director of the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine at the CDC, did note that there were “conversations that are ongoing and looking at what the types and locations of testing might be. … We’re actively looking at it.”

Last week, President Biden directed agencies to make recommendations to “impose additional public health measures for domestic travel” and to consider new requirements for people crossing land borders.

The yearlong coronavirus pandemic has been especially brutal for U.S. airlines. Amid stringent travel restrictions across the globe, the six biggest U.S. airlines lost roughly $34 billion—which was worse than the aftermath of 9/11 or the global financial crisis.

On Thursday, Southwest, American, and JetBlue announced that they lost a combined $3.5 billion in the final three months of the year. As expected, all three airlines—in addition to Delta, United, and Alaska—issued gloomy revenue outlooks for the current quarter.

“In the short term, a domestic testing requirement could further dampen travel demand and create confusion at a time when case counts are diminishing,” Savanthi Syth, an airlines analyst at Raymond James, wrote in a note Thursday.

“We expect testing supply to be an impediment to such an order in the short term and believe a test enforcement is more likely by summer when vaccine distribution is more widespread and testing capacities are greater.”

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.

Image: Reuters.