Earlier in the day, White House officials met with the heads of several major U.S. carriers, all of whom were vehemently opposed to such a mandate.
“We appreciated the opportunity to meet with the administration this morning,” said Nicholas E. Calio, chief executive of Airlines for America, who was among those who met with Jeff Zients, the administration’s coronavirus response coordinator, and other officials. “We had a very positive, constructive conversation focused on our shared commitment to science-based policies as we work together to end the pandemic, restore air travel and lead our nation toward recovery.”
Following that meeting, the Biden administration signaled that it did not plan to put a testing requirement in place.
“Reports that there is an intention to put in new requirements such as testing are not accurate,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
In interviews this week, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said there was an “active conversation” with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about a testing program.
Federal health officials last month began requiring all international travelers to show proof that they had tested negative for the coronavirus before boarding flights to the United States, with the goal of reducing the spread of the virus and its variants. About the same time, CDC officials said they also were weighing a similar testing requirement for domestic travelers.
That idea drew sharp pushback from airlines, unions and some lawmakers, who said it would be logistically impossible to launch and would further harm an industry struggling to stay afloat. Chief executives at several major airlines pointed to passenger declines on international routes after the testing requirement took effect, even though many had supported the decision.
Most health experts agree that ramping up testing can be an effective strategy for identifying and isolating those who might have the virus, particularly individuals who show no signs of infection.
A report this week from a team of researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and funded by the aviation industry said testing can play a key role in stopping the spread of the virus.
“Viral testing is an important public health screening mechanism that can quickly and efficiently identify those with infections and stop them from undergoing activities that could expose others, including potential travel,” said the report, which recommended steps that airports could take to reduce the risk that travelers could catch the virus.
Edward Nardell, a member of the study team and professor in the departments of environmental health and immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said testing might also offer another benefit to travelers: peace of mind.
“I know I’d feel much more comfortable, particularly in a long flight, if I had some assurance that no one on that flight is carrying detectable virus at the time you take off, but there are enormous logistics,” he said. “It can be done on a small scale, [but] the question is what would it take to do it on a large scale and that’s where we get into the unknowns from our perspective.”
There also are questions about who would pay for the cost of a tests, which in some cases range from $80 to more than $200.
Henry Wu, an associate professor at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta and director of the Emory TravelWell Center, said while such a strategy could be effective at preventing infected passengers from bringing the virus to the United States, a domestic mandate might be less effective since people can use other modes to move between states. One exception, Hawaii, has a testing requirement for visitors who want to avoid quarantine, he said.
Still, Wu said, testing airlines passengers could make sense in some instances.
“Covid-19 is already present in all states, but a key goal of testing is to limit spread of the new variants that have not widely circulated yet,” he said. “Airline passengers are probably traveling farther, so a test requirement before flying could help slow the spread, but the impact would depend on the relative number of travelers using other modes of transportation.”
Despite their opposition to a testing mandate, many airlines and airports have seized on preflight testing as a way to add an extra layer of assurance to nervous travelers.
In November, United Airlines announced it would offer free testing to passengers on select flights between Newark Liberty International Airport and London’s Heathrow Airport, effectively guaranteeing that everyone on board had tested negative for the coronavirus before departure. At least two dozen U.S. airports also now offer coronavirus testing on-site.