Airlines took a huge collective sigh of relief on Thursday as the Biden administration unveiled a package of new measures to protect the American people from the Omicron variant. The travel industry had feared a slew of new hastily decided restrictions in response to the latest COVID-19 variant but, so far at least, President Biden has stepped away from the travel ban nuclear button.
Instead, the administration confirmed a widely reported decision to reduce the timeframe for international pre-departure testing from three days to just one day. The new requirement will apply equally to all travelers, regardless of their vaccination status or citizenship.
In a statement, the White House said the reduced timeframe for international travelers to get their pre-departure tests “provides an added degree of public health protection as scientists continue to assess the Omicron variant.”
A huge range of pre-departure tests are still suitable for travel to the United States including rapid antigen tests which are not quite as accurate as PCR tests.
In addition, the only change to travel rules announced on Thursday was a widely anticipated extension of the federal mask mandate for public transport. The mandate was due to expire in January but has now been extended through March 18, 2022.
Although the mandate has been extended, it’s the shortest extension so far approved by the President and as such could indicate a desire by the administration to lift the mandate sooner rather than later.
Unfortunately, however, a controversial travel ban will remain in place for South Africa and a slew of other southern African countries. Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Chief Medical Advisor to the President, says he hopes the bans will only be temporary and will be lifted soon.
The travel ban has been blasted by the World Health Organization (WHO) because it is effectively punishing South Africa for quickly raising the alarm about the new variant. The latest evidence suggests Omicron had spread outside Africa long before it was detected.
Airlines, though, remain thankful that the administration didn’t extend the travel ban to a whole host of other countries that have now reported confirmed cases of Omicron.
They are also incredibly relieved that President Biden didn’t announce additional testing requirements – such as pre-departure testing for domestic travelers which they fear could set them back to April 2020.
There was also the very real risk that Biden would demand international travelers quarantine for at least seven days on arrival into the United States – a measure that would kill demand. Legal issues, as well as enforcement questions, effectively killed off that idea.
A senior administration official, however, insists the President could go further and at a moment notice.
“We will continue to act aggressively,” the official said on Thursday. “We will continue to follow the science. We will continue to prepare for all scenarios and work day and night to protect the American people, keep our schools open, keep our economy growing, and get this pandemic behind us.”
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.