Do I Need a Negative COVID Test to Fly in the United States?
by Elliott McNamee, on February 11, 2021
Update Feb.15: The U.S. CDC and Biden Administration stated that they do not plan to require negative COVID tests prior to flying within the U.S.
Following the federal mask mandate requiring masks on interstate planes, trains, and buses and the negative COVID test requirement for international travelers into the United States, the Department of Transportation is reportedly considering requiring a negative COVID test to fly within the U.S.
This is a big deal and a lot to unpack, so let’s take it one step at a time.
First, what does this mean for me and my business travelers?
The impact on business travelers depends entirely on whether this testing requirement exempts work travel.
There’s precedent for either a blanket exemption for work travel or narrow exemptions. Some states like California, Washington, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont and others specifically exempt business travelers from their travel restrictions and recommendations, while others like Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York exempt only essential workers (think healthcare workers or members of the military on orders). But whereas enforcement of state travel restrictions is fairly lax, airlines would be far stricter in demanding proof of a negative test.
If there’s an exemption and business travelers aren’t required to provide a negative test result, booking and traveling won’t change much, besides perhaps making sure travelers have proof that they’re traveling for work. Airlines would further reduce their schedules, meaning slower and less-convenient travel times but also fewer people onboard planes (more on this in a bit).
If there’s not a blanket exemption for business travel, we expect a big reduction in flying from our clients. Travel planners and travelers will need to find testing sites that can quickly schedule tests and return test results and employers will likely need to cover the out-of-pocket expense for these tests. In this case, we expect that more travelers would choose to drive to jobs to avoid the testing requirements, continuing a trend we see in AmTrav data with more hotel and car bookings relative to air bookings.
What’s the big picture?
One thing is fairly certain: just like testing requirements reduced demand for international travel, pre-travel testing requirements would dramatically reduce domestic air travel, up to 50% of their currently-depressed levels. Far fewer people would travel, meaning emptier planes and further-reduced airline schedules.
Airlines are predictably unhappy: Southwest CEO Gary Kelly asked “Why pick on air travel… test [people] before they go to the grocery store, before they go to a restaurant.”
Airlines and others have pointed out that there isn’t sufficient testing capacity for air travel: the current 750,000 daily travelers would take up nearly half of the 1.6 million daily tests administered in the U.S. Test availability varies widely as it is: tests are relatively easy to find and schedule in states like Alaska, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wyoming where more than one in one thousand people are tested per day, but are far harder to get in states like Alabama, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota where only one in ten thousand people are tested per day.
Is there any good news?
Yes! Let’s end on a good note. Because you and I and all our friends are doing a good job wearing our masks and social distancing, new COVID infections have decreased 35% in the last two weeks and hospitalizations have dropped back to November levels. COVID vaccines are given to more and more people every day.
As of last week, all but nine states showed double-digit percentage decreases in COVID cases week over week, including ten with 25%+ decreases.
Testing requirements for domestic air travel are a developing story, so we’ll continue following and keep you updated. In the meantime, we encourage you to wear a mask and stay safe. We hope to see you soon!