The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says new pre-departure test requirements that are due to come into force on January 26 could pave the way for the incoming Biden administration to lift draconian travel bans that have been imposed on the UK, Europe and Brazil, as well as China and Iran for nearly a year.
Dr Martin Cetron, director of the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine said during an interview on Wednesday that discussions over lifting existing travel restrictions were still ongoing and that new pre-departure testing measures would now form part of the talks.
Both the CDC and White House Coronavirus task force are said to have been in favor of lifting the bans, imposed by Presidential Proclamation, for several months. Sources within the federal government said an initial recommendation to lift the travel bans was made in late November but President Trump failed to reach a final decision on the matter.
Despite the heavy-handed travel bans, the U.S. has otherwise taken a light-touch approach to prevent importation of COVID-19 from its own citizens. The CDC initially set up a system of “enhanced health screening” at select airports early last year but the often derided program was quietly dropped months later.
The pre-departure testing requirement has only now been introduced in response to the emergence of worrying variants of the COVID-19 virus in several countries including the UK, South Africa and Brazil.
While a number of countries have rushed to introduce pre-departute testing on top of existing travel bans and quarantine restrictions, Dr Cetron said the CDC wanted to use new technology and processes to reopen air travel.
“Protecting the global public’s health while minimizing the interference to travel and trade is essentially our goal,” Cetron explained. “This testing order is really a recognition and another step in that direction.”
Airlines have long demanded the use of pre-departure tests in an effort to ease or even completely drop other travel restrictions. With a lack of federal coordination, several airlines including American, Delta and United have developed their own pre-departure testing initiatives.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents many U.S. and international airlines, criticized the countries that added pre-departure testing on top of existing restrictions. Alexander de Juniac, IATA’s director general said it was unrealistic for some countries, where the novel Coronavirus is endemic, to aim for a “zero-COVID world”.
Instead, IATA and the wider travel industry would like governments to take a more “balanced approach” to the risks posed by COVID-19 – an argument that is increasingly hard to justify as case numbers surge across the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
With vaccines likely to be the best way out of the crisis, President-elect Biden could be forgiven for keeping the existing travel bans in place until the most vulnerable are inoculated. Airlines and the industry will likely have to hunker down for the next few months and hope the vaccine rollout doesn’t drag on.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.