USA scraps pre-flight testing for international travellers

From Sunday June 12 you’ll no longer be required to undergo a Covid test before flying to the US.

By Bloomberg News, June 11 2022
USA scraps pre-flight testing for international travellers

Sunday June 12 will see the USA scrap its long-standing and of late contentious requirement that international travelers produce a negative result from a Covid-19 test before boarding their flight.

The move follows pressure from airlines that viewed the measure as excessive and blamed it for depressing ticket purchases.

The change will take effect just after midnight on June 12 and be reassessed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 90 days, according to a senior administration official who requested anonymity to detail the plan before it was formally announced.

Under existing policy, international travelers flying to the US are required to present proof of a negative coronavirus test taken within a day of their departure flight to the US. Foreign nationals will still be required to be vaccinated against coronavirus to enter the country, with limited exceptions.

The health agency may decide to reinstate the requirement if a new, concerning variant of the virus emerges, the official said. The administration will continue to recommend testing prior to air travel, but believes that coronavirus vaccines and new treatments made it possible to ease the requirement.

The move is not likely to significantly increase the risk to the US of coronavirus spread, according to biosecurity expert Eric Toner, though he said travelers should still wear masks when they fly to reduce the chance of spread.

“I have long thought the testing requirement for travel to the U.S. was not evidence based or logical – and most other countries have abandoned this approach,” said Toner, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, in an interview. “It’s been a hardship for the airlines and a real hardship for travelers as people get back to travel for business and leisure.”

Top airline executives have said in recent weeks that flyers were concerned about the risk of booking international travel only to become stranded in foreign countries. While domestic airline ticket purchases have largely rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, international trips have not.

“With the widespread availability of effective treatment options and vaccines, we believe this is the right time for this decision,” American Airlines Group Inc. said in a statement about the testing decision.

‘Huge step forward’

American Airlines CEO Robert Isom called the rule “nonsensical” in remarks at an industry conference last week and said it was depressing both business and leisure travel.

The U.S. Travel Association estimated that eliminating the requirement could bring 5.4 million visitors to the US and an additional US$9 billion in travel spending through the remainder of the calendar year.

“Today marks another huge step forward for the recovery of inbound air travel and the return of international travel to the United States,” US Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow said in an emailed statement.

“The Biden administration is to be commended for this action, which will welcome back visitors from around the world and accelerate the recovery of the US travel industry.”

The travel and tourism industry has traditionally supported one in 20 US jobs, either directly or indirectly, creating $1.9 trillion in economic activity in 2019, the Commerce Department said in a fact sheet this week.

But the Covid-19 pandemic cut deeply into the industry. Even with a partial recovery, spending by international visitors in 2021 was only 34% – US$81 billion – of pre-pandemic levels, the Commerce Department said.

“It’s huge for the industry,” Helane Becker, a senior research analyst at Cowen, said Friday in an appearance on Bloomberg Television. The change should have “huge positive effects on international travel right into the fall,” she said.

ESTA back in demand

But before making that long-awaited trip stateside, most travellers will need to apply for a fresh ESTA or 'visa waiver'.

Once issued, an ESTA – which stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorisation – is valid for two years, which means that any ESTA granted before the Covid pandemic hit in early 2020 will long since have expired.

Thankfully, the ESTA application process is fast and hassle-free: just fill out the online form (which takes around 10-15 minutes), pay the US$21 (around A$30) fee and in most cases, you'll receive your travel authorisation right away – although the US Department of Home Affairs recommends applying at least 72 hours before your flight, departure in case of any delays.

And don’t be fooled by numerous ESTA websites that charge inflated fees and masquerade as the official government portal.

While many will process the ESTA application on your behalf, they will usually charge a higher fee, and also there’s the risk that comes with sharing your personal information with a third party company which may then sell this to somebody else.

This article is published under license from Bloomberg Media: the original article can be viewed here