Skift Take

New regulations won't be welcomed by the travel industry, and airlines in particular, so soon after the country reopened its borders on Nov. 8.

U.S. President Joe Biden announced on Thursday that passengers flying to the U.S. will need to show a negative Covid-19 test performed within one day of departure as the spread of the Omicron variant continues to raise concerns.

The new rule, certain to be controversial, goes into effect during the week of December 6. It comes after the country’s first official Omicron variant case was detected in California, discovered in a fully vaccinated patient who had recently returned from South Africa.

The White House did not specify whether the required test should be a PCR, or whether it could be a rapid test, in its statement.

In addition, Biden extended the federal mask mandate on flights, trains, and other forms of public transport through March 18, 2022. The mandate was previously set to expire on January 18.

The administration called the new testing rules and extended mask mandate necessary to “protect the American people against this variant and to continue to battle the Delta variant during the winter months when viruses tend to thrive.” Only about 60 percent of Americans are vaccinated against Covid-19, which is low among developed countries.

The update follows an earlier recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and will be a major blow for the travel industry, which had been counting on a return to business following the reopening of borders on Nov. 8.

On November 26, the U.S. added fresh restrictions for Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Malawi and South Africa, where new data reveals the Omicron wave is much steeper than the country’s previous Delta wave. On Wednesday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said travel restrictions that isolated any one country or region were “not only deeply unfair and punitive – they are ineffective.”

The travel industry’s main lobby group, the U.S. Travel Association, expressed that it hopes all of this will be temporary.

“We hope this measure to narrow the pre-departure testing window will be temporary until more is learned about the Omicron variant. In the meantime, the travel industry urges everyone to get vaccinated and boosted as soon as possible,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, the association’s of public affairs and policy. “It has long been known that measures to combat the virus and its variants would evolve and require us to be nimble and adapt.”

The tightened regulations may dampen future demand for corporate travel, but according to one agency, the sector is prepared to adapt. “It is reassuring to see the White House taking proportionate mitigation measures that support public health protection while keeping travel and the economy moving,” said Drew Crawley, American Express Global Business Travel’s chief commercial officer. “The industry has been investing in traveler safety and wellbeing since the start of the pandemic. We have the agility to keep travelers informed and supported when their trips and plans are disrupted, and systems that can comply with and complement evolving travel requirements.”

UPDATED: This story was updated to include comments from the U.S. Travel Association and American Express Global Business Travel.


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Tags: airlines, Biden Administration, coronavirus, covid-19, omicron variant, tourism, usa, white house

Photo credit: U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington, D.C., November 19, 2021. The President announced new rules for airline passengers today. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

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