On Christmas Eve, U.S. health officials did something they hadn’t done during the course of the entire pandemic—they mandated COVID-19 testing for travelers coming from another country, in this case, specifically the United Kingdom.
As of December 28, those arriving stateside on flights from the U.K. must provide proof of a negative PCR or antigen test, the results of which must be from no more than 72 hours prior to departure from the U.K., according to a new mandate issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Airlines are required to confirm the negative test result for all passengers before they board. If a passenger chooses not to take a test, the airline must deny boarding, the CDC stated.
For those who must change their flight plans due to the new policy, the vast majority of airlines currently offer passengers the option to change their flight without a fee—and to apply the flight credit to a future journey. British Airways allows travelers to cancel and receive a future travel credit up until check-in time.
The mandate was implemented in response to the recent discovery of a new coronavirus variant in the U.K. that is thought to be up to 70 percent more transmissible than other variants. Despite the control measure, the new variant has already been detected in California, Colorado, Florida, and New York.
Currently, travel between the United Kingdom and the United States remains highly restricted. Since mid-March, there’s been a ban on foreign nationals traveling to the U.S. from the U.K. and Europe, with exceptions including U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and some family members.
Other than the above bans, the United States has not implemented control measures for arrivals at the federal level, such as COVID testing or quarantine requirements—although individual states such as Hawaii and New York have.
In September, the U.S. dropped its COVID-19 health screenings for international arrivals, which asked that those arriving from abroad fly into one of 13 airports where enhanced screening measures were being carried out. The screenings included asking passengers about their medical history and current health condition, taking their temperature, and obtaining their contact information. Passengers were also asked—but not required—to proceed to their final destination and self-quarantine for 14 days.
In November, the CDC issued new recommendations for international travelers, asking that they get tested twice for COVID-19—once before and once after their flight—and that they stay home for one week after arrival. But once again this was not a requirement, just a recommendation asking travelers to stay put for one week post-travel while awaiting negative COVID test results.
In the wake of the CDC’s new testing requirement for flights from the U.K., Airlines for America, a trade group that represents the major U.S. airlines, on Monday submitted a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, asking that such a testing protocol be used in lieu of the travel bans that are currently in place for travel from Europe, the U.K., and Brazil.
Airlines for America, whose members include American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, and Southwest Airlines, said that it feels that “a well-planned program focused on increasing testing of travelers to the United States” will be more effective “than the blanket travel restrictions currently in place.”
The airline and travel industries have been pushing governments for months to use COVID testing as a way to further open up travel and borders amid the pandemic. While some countries have done so, many still do not have testing protocols in place.