Airport Wait Times Likely to Climb as U.S. Reopens to International Travel

When the ban on international travel lifts on November 8, the deluge of travelers combined with the need to verify vaccination status and COVID test results could create some serious bottlenecks.

Airport Wait Times Likely to Climb as U.S. Reopens to International Travel

International travelers entering the United States will need to pack some patience.

Photo by Shutterstock

By all indications, the floodgates are about to open. On November 8, fully vaccinated international travelers from 33 countries who have been effectively barred from entering the United States for 20 months will finally be able to travel to the U.S.

The excitement is palpable. In the last month, flight bookings to destinations throughout the United States have reached 70 percent of prepandemic levels—52 percent of them were for international inbound flights, according to travel tech provider Travelport. Bookings for U.S.-bound flights from the United Kingdom during Thanksgiving week alone jumped 2,200 percent following the October announcement that the U.S. borders would open in November, Travelport reported.

As of November 8, the vast majority of foreign nationals, including those from the 26-nation European Schengen area, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil, China, Iran, and South Africa, who had been restricted from entering the United States since March 2020, will be allowed to enter the United States as long as they provide proof of vaccination—the vaccine requirement for foreign nationals does not apply to U.S. citizens and residents and is in addition to the negative COVID test required for everyone, including U.S. citizens and residents, entering the United States.

Where are travelers heading once they arrive stateside? The top five U.S. destinations being booked by international travelers for the coming weeks are New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Orlando, and San Francisco, according to Travelport. But arriving at their vacation destination could take some extra time and patience.

“The big issue we foresee is at airline check-in at the airports outside of the U.S.,” says Sherry Stein, head of technology for SITA Americas, an air transport communications and information technology provider that works with numerous airports throughout the world. “[U.S. Customs and Border Patrol] requires that the airlines are responsible for verifying vaccination records and test results before allowing [international travelers] to check-in.”

Stein points out that verification of health documents is and will continue to be largely a manual process, at least for awhile. Having airport and airline personnel individually verify each travelers’ vaccination status and COVID test results prior to boarding is going to take time.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), average passenger processing and wait times have already doubled from what they were during peak travel periods prepandemic. “This is placing immense pressure on travelers and the industry at large, creating a cocktail of congestion and confusion, not to mention frustration all around,” adds Stein.

SITA is working with governments to create a digital travel solution that will allow passengers to share required travel and health documentation with authorities digitally, before they arrive at the airport.

But until such a solution is implemented, authorities with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) are also cautioning that wait times and lines are likely to increase come November 8.

“CBP is anticipating an increase in travel volumes and wait times to cross the border. Travelers should be prepared with the correct information and documentation to improve and expedite their travel experience,” Matthew Davies, executive director of admissibility and passenger programs for CBP, said during a media briefing about the opening of U.S. land borders to vaccinated foreign travelers.

Travelers from Canada and Mexico can currently enter the United States by air but have been awaiting the freedom to travel to the U.S. by land since the land borders were closed to nonessential travel in March 2020—only essential workers have been allowed to cross.

Starting November 8, fully vaccinated leisure travelers will be able to enter the United States by land or ferry from Mexico and Canada, and they will not need to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test as is required for international air arrivals into the United States.

“These travelers will be required to attest to vaccination status and present proof of vaccination to a CBP officer upon request,” said Davies.

The CDC considers someone to be fully vaccinated as long as it has been 14 days since they have received the required single or second dose of vaccines approved either by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—which are Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines—or the World Health Organization (WHO), which include the Oxford-AstraZeneca/Covishield, Sinopharm, and Sinovac vaccines.

Acceptable proof of vaccination will be a digital or paper vaccine certificate, including the United Kingdom National Health Service COVID Pass and the European Union Digital COVID Certificate. For those using a digital QR code, the code must link to information confirming that the proof of vaccination comes from an official immunization record.

The proof of vaccination must include the traveler’s full name and date of birth and must match the information on their passport or other travel documents. It also needs to have the official source that issued the record, such as the public health agency, government body, or other authorized vaccine provider, as well as the vaccine manufacturer and date(s) of inoculation.

Those who are not vaccinated due to “religious reasons or other moral convictions,” are not exempt from the requirement, according to the CDC.

Children under 18, those with a documented medical reason that makes it inadvisable for them to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, and citizens of countries with limited COVID-19 vaccine availability are exempt from the vaccine requirement and instead must provide a negative COVID test from within one day prior to their departure flight to the U.S. or provide proof of having recovered from COVID within the past 90 days. They must also verify that they will be tested within three to five days after arriving in the U.S. and that they will quarantine for seven days.

All international passengers flying into the United States who are age two and older—including returning U.S. citizens and permanent residents—must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test (PCR, antigen, or approved home or self tests) taken within three days prior to boarding their flight to the U.S. Starting on November 8, unvaccinated Americans will need to be tested within 24 hours of boarding their flight to the U.S. (versus three days).

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Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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