The travel industry has never faced an existential threat like the COVID-19 pandemic. Leisure travel has declined immensely, while business travel is down by as much as 90 percent. International travel has been uniquely impacted, due to countrywide restrictions imposed around the world, as well as the lack of consistency among testing and travel protocols.
Recovery remains stubbornly on the distant horizon, but the beginning of a new presidency — and a fresh approach to fighting the pandemic — provides an opportunity for the travel industry and federal government to act in partnership to balance the desire of Americans to travel with critical public health considerations.
The United States must lead the global community in implementing a clear, risk-based approach to travel. President Joe Biden’s administration is off to a strong start with its recent executive order mandating masks for interstate travel, including at airports. We also hope that the testing requirements for international arrivals, coupled with increasing vaccination rates, will allow for a lifting of the travel bans currently in place.
There are serious issues, however, related to testing accessibility and verification that should be addressed to ensure the roll-out is successful. For example, the U.S. government should provide guidance for labs to send the test results directly to the appropriate authority, or otherwise transmit them electronically. This could be done using a QR code or similar function that would protect the privacy of the traveler’s data and provide test results that could be read accurately, no matter the language of the passenger or ticket agent.
We also caution against adding excessive layers on top of these requirements for domestic and international travel. For example, requiring passengers to quarantine upon arrival in the United States after testing negative for COVID-19 will discourage otherwise safe travel. Moreover, requiring passengers to test prior to domestic air travel would mean the United States has to test several hundred thousand more people per day, putting tremendous pressure on an already strained network of U.S. laboratories by pressing them to process these tests with rapid turnarounds. A domestic testing requirement for air travel could simply lead to travelers finding other means of travel — like trains, cars or buses — to avoid the hassle of obtaining a test.
Ensuring the safety and security of travel is our utmost goal, but that does not mean we should ignore the reality that, with each additional requirement, a further depression of economic activity occurs. We therefore urge the federal government to take a balanced approach to policymaking in this space, unless it plans to offer new financial support to our already struggling industry.
Lastly, as more Americans receive vaccinations, it is critical that the U.S. government formulate a system for Americans to demonstrate proof of vaccinations in a way that will be recognized internationally. This means working with countries and international bodies around the world to set appropriate standards for travel and advancing guidance on how technology can offer secure solutions to both vaccination and testing verification. In an electronic world, relying on paper copies of either testing or vaccination results is not scalable and can be subject to fraud.
The federal government and the travel industry must tackle this crisis with decision-making rooted in science and risk-based strategies. Working together, the path to recovery and a return to an interconnected world is within reach.
Peter Vlitas is the SVP of Airline Relations at Internova Travel Group and is writing on behalf of a coalition of travel management companies that collectively represents thousands of U.S.-based travel agents and services millions of corporate and leisure travelers.
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