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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Dropping COVID Tests for International Flights: Would You Feel Safe?

Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

At a time when highly-transmissible Covid variants are spreading even among the vaccinated and boosted, would you feel better about returning to the U.S. from overseas knowing that everyone aboard the aircraft had tested negative the day before, or having no idea who might or might not be infected with Covid? 

If airlines get their way, the U.S. could soon drop its requirement that all airline passengers — vaccinated or unvaccinated — produce a pre-departure negative antigen (rapid) Covid test the day before returning from an international destination. 

The U.S. Travel Association and Airlines for America, trade groups that represent the travel industry and U.S. airlines, are pressing the Biden Administration to end the protection, arguing that the “travel industry remains disproportionately harmed” by the requirement. Lifting the protective measure would “lead to more foreigners visiting the U.S.,” they argue, and besides, as one spokesman reasoned, Covid “is here already.”

None of these arguments address the health and safety of passengers — the ones buying over-priced tickets, spending extra hours arriving early at airports due to “staffing” shortages — or even the costs involved in flight crews calling in sick after being exposed to untested passengers.

Granted antigen tests are not fool-proof. It’s possible to test negative on a rapid test, and then test positive a few days later. But what a negative result does show in most cases is that you aren’t yet immediately contagious, and therefore not endangering fellow passengers sitting near you in an enclosed space for long periods of time.

As far as putting U.S. tourism at a disadvantage compared to other countries that have lifted their testing requirements, I’d say gun violence and mass shootings at schools, grocery stores and hospitals will have more to do with whether or not foreigners decide to travel to the U.S.

The author, with husband Tom Auciello. Turin, Italy (Image: Tom Auciello)

Much is made about the “inconvenience” and expense of testing. So just how difficult is it to get a test while traveling? You can do it at most airports right before your flight if you want, or to be safe, make an appointment at a local pharmacy in town the day before. That’s what my husband and I did on a recent trip to Italy. The whole process took about 15 minutes, and cost around $20. We waited outside on the sidewalk until the pharmacist declared us “negativo,” and handed us our paperwork in English and Italian. He also sent the results in an e-mail so we could download them into our Air France “Ready to Fly” App, and get our boarding passes on our phones instead of having to check in at a crowded airport desk.

It’s true that if you test positive, you won’t be able to fly until you test negative. Another possibility is to wait five days and get a doctor to sign off that you’re no longer contagious. In any case, it means having a back-up plan — a hotel room in which to isolate and an airline ticket that allows changes.

It’s the price we should all continue to pay for the privilege of traveling during a pandemic which is not yet over. Without the requirement, people would no doubt get on planes with symptoms, telling themselves that it’s just a cold or allergies.

Instead of making up excuses to sell more tickets by eliminating testing, airlines should be lobbying to keep the requirements in place to protect their passengers and flight crews. They should also be doing more to encourage everyone to wear masks, per CDC recommendations, instead of celebrating the lifting of mandatory masking.

They could start by asking flight attendants to model Covid-safe travel by following CDC recommendations that “everyone properly wear a well-fitting mask over the nose and mouth in indoor areas of public transportation such as airplanes, trains, etc,. and transportation hubs such as airports, stations.”

No flight attendants wore masks on a recent Delta flight between Seattle and Cincinnati. “It’s nice to see your smiles again,” said a sign posted near the gate announcing that masks were now optional. I’d much preferred a sign that said “Masks are no longer mandatory. But for your protection and the protection of fellow passengers and flight crews, please consider wearing a mask while not drinking or eating.”

Carol Pucci
Carol Pucci
Carol Pucci is a former Seattle Times travel writer with a blog at travel.carolpucci.com.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. But, Carol, there is no requirement to test before that international trip FROM the USA to wherever you are going. Do you think all those planes have no passengers with Covid? Of course some do. So it seems totally silly to require it on the way back. It would only make sense if nobody in the USA had Covid and we were trying to keep it out of the country. At this point, we need to join the majority of countries that have dropped this requirement.

  2. My husband and I went to Spain in April and trying to find a Covid test to get back into the country was extremely frustrating. We flew out of the Barcelona airport and to my knowledge there were no testing options there so we had to try to find a clinic somewhere else. We finally found a clinic that seemed legitimate (lots of scammers out there taking advantage of people needing these tests for travel). In order to get the results back within 24 hours we had to pay an extra fee which ended up being 55 euros each. This clinic was in a different neighborhood from where we were staying and it took a lot of time to travel there and then wait an hour for the results. Half the day of our vacation was spent getting these tests. While we were there we saw two other American couples getting tests as well. We were not given the option of emailing our results ahead of time so we were not able to check-in early with the airline. The worse part of all of this is the anxiety I felt during the whole trip worrying what would happen if one of us tested positive and we weren’t able to get back into the county. It was a dark cloud hanging over the whole trip. We both are vaccinated and boosted and it was annoying and frustrating that we had to do all this extra work. Getting Covid tests abroad is not always easy or inexpensive. I hope this requirement is dropped. It just burdens people more and it’s clearly not stopping the virus from spreading.

  3. We were able to get antigen tests at the airport in Lisbon, no big problem there. That got us to Boston, where we entered the US – and got on our connecting flight to Seattle, where a very ill man was allowed to get on and sit next to us. Exposure notification followed, the next day.

    I don’t know. Maybe it depends, is this a public health emergency? Can an emergency be permanent?

    I’m back in Portugal now, and this time, they’re over the masks. They aren’t declaring victory – cases are up – but the government is more interested in vaccination than “social distancing”. And it’s so much easier for me to understand Portuguese without masks, along with the usual benefits of being able to see faces.

  4. Relieved to see this drop. It made sense at the beginning of the pandemic when we were in containment mode and had no medical intervention tools. COVID is the genie that testing requirements won’t put back in the bottle. Wear your mask if you must or stay home, but the testing requirement is an outdated response to COVID.

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