Come January 20, with the election finally settled, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris will be sworn into office, inheriting a mountain of challenges, many of which affect the travel landscape and travelers in undeniable ways. How the incoming administration tackles those challenges could have very real consequences for each and every individual traveler and how we experience the world.
The Biden-Harris transition team has identified four priorities—COVID-19, economic recovery, racial justice, and climate change, each of which plays a pivotal role in the future of travel.
The coronavirus pandemic has stalled global movement across borders since early 2020. Developing a robust response to it will be critical to restoring confidence and restarting safe travel again. Meanwhile, soaring unemployment has created financial insecurity for millions of Americans, many of whom won’t be able to afford a vacation—or even a trip home to see family—until they are on a more solid financial footing. Consider, too, the legions of travel and hospitality industry workers who have been furloughed or laid off during this crisis.
The incoming administration has also vowed to address systemic racism, something that needs to be addressed within travel (and by travelers) as much as in any other segment of society.
Lastly, a commitment to fighting climate change is critical to ensuring that we safeguard the environments and natural landscapes we as travelers hold so dear.
We reached out to travel industry insiders for what they’re paying closest attention to as the incoming administration plots its course.
1. Biden’s COVID task force
Earlier this week, the Biden-Harris transition team announced that they have brought together a COVID-19 advisory board made up of public health experts, doctors, and scholars.
Based on their advice and scientific findings, the Biden administration is focused on mitigating the current surge in coronavirus cases. The transition team’s pandemic plan is to ensure all Americans have access to free COVID-19 testing; to mandate masks nationwide; and to create clear, consistent guidance regarding how communities should respond to the crisis, including when businesses should open or close. The Biden team wants particular attention paid to at-risk populations.
In tandem with this week’s positive vaccine news from Pfizer, which reported that its coronavirus vaccine trial was 90 percent effective, the Biden administration has proposed that the U.S. government invest $25 billion in a vaccine manufacturing and distribution plan that guarantees a coronavirus vaccine will be made available to every American, free of charge.
Why this matters for travel:
“One thing President-elect Biden has stressed during the campaign is that COVID-19 and the economic recovery are not separate issues. There will be no travel recovery until we’ve beaten the virus. Biden understands this, and there’s much reason for optimism that his administration will prioritize defeating COVID-19,” said Scott Keyes, founder of airfare tracking service Scott’s Cheap Flights.
2. A proposed path to economic recovery
Acknowledging that the U.S. economy has been battered by the pandemic, the Biden administration wants to, first and foremost, provide aid and relief to the people and sectors still suffering from the setbacks.
The President-elect wants to aid local governments so essential workers can remain on the payroll, extend COVID-related unemployment payments to those who are out of work, and provide incentives for small businesses to reopen.
Longer-term economic goals include bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., investing in a green economy and workforce, making childcare accessible for all, and closing the racial wealth gap, among others.
Why this matters for travel:
“The travel industry accounts for more than a third of overall U.S. unemployment, and policies to promote relief, recovery, and stimulus for travel businesses are integral to a U.S. economic turnaround,” U.S. Travel Association president and CEO Roger Dow said in a statement.
Added Dow, “We share the emphasis on combating the spread of COVID-19 expressed by the president-elect while building economic growth. The right combination of technologies and behaviors already exists to allow the restart of travel without compromising health and safety, and making rapid and reliable testing more widely available will be a key element of an even broader economic reopening.”
3. Racial equity and the travel ban
“The moment has come for our nation to deal with systemic racism. To deal with the growing economic inequality in our nation. And to deal with the denial of the promise of this nation—to so many,” the Biden-Harris team writes in its detailed transition action plan.
The incoming administration hopes to address these issues by investing in BIPOC small businesses; improving access to homeownership and affordable housing; ensuring equity in higher education, management, and training; closing the racial wealth gap; and promoting diversity across federal agencies, among other initiatives.
Why this matters for travel:
That racial equity is one of the four pillars of the transition team’s top priorities sets the tone for combating systemic racism within and beyond our borders. It’s a very different tone than the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban (which the Supreme Court upheld in a 2018 ruling), banning nationals from five Muslim-majority countries—Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, with some exceptions. (In 2020, Burma, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Sudan were added to the list, each with a unique set of rules and exceptions, according to the U.S. State Department.) For those in the travel industry eager to see greater cooperation and connectivity between the United States and the rest of the world, the Biden administration offers a welcome change.
“One thing that the Biden administration has said it already intends to do is to remove some of the Trump administration restrictions on people traveling to the United States from Muslim-majority countries. [Additionally,] the Trump administration had made it more difficult for people in certain foreign countries to obtain a visa to the U.S.,” says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and president of travel market research firm Atmosphere Research.
He added: “I do think that the Biden administration will make it easier for U.S. citizens to travel abroad and make the U.S. a more welcoming destination for international visitors.”
A loosening of restrictions on travel to Cuba may also be on the list, Harteveldt thinks, as well as the intention to work with governments to relax COVID-related travel restrictions, both inbound and outbound.
With a country as divided as the United States is in the aftermath of the election, Expedia CEO Peter Kern sees this moment as an opportunity for travel to do what it does best—unite people.
“As a company that is in the business of bringing people together, we have faith in humanity and America to put people ahead of politics and come together for our collective good,” Kern wrote in a Tweet after the election. “Regardless of your political affiliation, there is no denying that the prospect of our nation’s first woman, first African American, and first South-Asian American in the Vice Presidency is a true step towards equality in our country.”
4. Climate change
Prior to the pandemic, climate change was at the forefront of the global agenda in terms of issues that need to be addressed immediately and forcefully. The need to remain focused on climate concerns hasn’t changed, and raging wildfires in the American West and tropical storms in the South and along the Atlantic coast have served as a constant reminder.
The Biden administration hopes to create clean energy jobs centered around sustainable infrastructure projects and technologies; invest in electric vehicle manufacturing; install zero-emission public transit options in every U.S. city; generate clean electricity; and construct sustainable homes, among other goals.
Biden has also pledged repeatedly that he will rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate action, which President Trump pulled the United States out of.
Why this matters for travel:
“We can expect a larger environmental focus on travel, including initiatives like requiring airlines to purchase carbon offsets for some flights,” says Keyes. “There will also likely be increased fuel efficiency standards for cars and a major new investment in clean energy technologies, from solar and wind to electric vehicles.”
And the many other issues that could affect travel . . .
Beyond the President-elect’s top four priorities, there are numerous ways in which decisions and policies embraced by the Biden administration could affect travel. When it comes to airline industry oversight, will the Biden administration stand in the way of the Boeing 737 MAX’s return to service? Will it offer consumers some leverage in the ongoing battle over the minimum size of airplane seats?
Will the Biden administration invest more in high-speed and ecofriendly rail travel? Biden was an avid user of Amtrak during his VP days, after all.
Another issue Harteveldt said he will be keep a close watch on is whether diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China improve to a degree that an open skies agreement can be formed, allowing for greater nonstop flight service between the two countries.
John Grant, senior analyst at air travel data firm OAG, based in the U.K., said he is hoping to see greater cooperation from the new administration.
“Obviously, from a global perspective controlling COVID-19 is crucial. For that to happen, all countries have to agree to a set of protocols and standards that both build consumer confidence and allow airlines to cautiously rebuild their networks and launch more international services,” says Grant. “Aviation does not and has never seen this pandemic as one country trying to win over another but if the new administration can both join and indeed lead the industry’s recovery, that would be a very welcome development.”
Ultimately, time will tell. A lot can happen in four years.