While vaccines are the ultimate way to get travel moving again, there has been a whole lot of talk about just how much testing regimes can help to get things moving more quickly. In fact, the US airline lobbying group Airlines for America (A4A) has now come out in favor of a comprehensive testing program for all international travel inbound to the US. This is a good way forward, but there is a downside. México will not be happy.
As reported by Reuters, A4A sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence saying that it “is writing to express our support for a [CDC] proposal… [that would implement] a global program to require testing for travelers to the United States.” When A4A speaks, what that really means is that its member airlines want this to happen, and you can understand why that would be the case.
Right now, so many countries are closed to travel for Americans that it has severely hampered any efforts to get international travel going more broadly. Even beyond that, people who live in the European Union, the United Kingdom, Brazil, China, and Iran can’t enter the US at all.
The proposal which A4A is supporting doesn’t seem to be in writing yet, but the basic idea appears to be that everyone arriving in the US on an international flight would have to receive a negative test result before arrival, presumably within 72 hours since that seems to have become the standard. It could be either a molecular or antigen test. In return, the government would allow people from the EU, UK, and Brazil to enter the US again. The A4A letter, it should be noted, does not appear to address China or Iran, which I suppose isn’t entirely surprising.
This sounds like a great plan, right? It would replace the byzantine, ever-changing rules that vary by country, by day and replace it with an easily-understandable plan. In addition, it would open our borders back up to the most important travel market for Americans… Europe. This would get more airplanes flying over the oceans again, this time with actual people onboard. What a novel concept. So what’s not to like?
There is actually some downside here, and to find it, you need to look no further than across our southern border. Right now, México is wide open for Americans to visit, and they are going in droves. Just how many people are going? Well, we don’t have the numbers yet, but I can tell you this. According to Cirium schedule data, seats on US airlines between the continental US and México are up 8.4 percent year-over-year.
Let me say that again. Seats on US airlines between the continental US and México this January are up 8.4 percent compared to last January when there was no pandemic. Let me put this in chart form and compare it to some other markets, because it can’t be overstated.
Jan 2021 vs Jan 2020 % Change in Seats on US Airlines From Continental US
So, who wants to guess which markets are open?
This is really a one-two punch for those on the right side of the chart. Right now, México and the Caribbean are getting their share of travelers who might prefer to go elsewhere. Since they can’t, that’s good news for… México and the Caribbean. If borders open up, then that will hurt these places, and that’s ok. After all, it will be better for everyone on the whole if borders open.
But the other problem here is that right now, all you need to do is buy a stupidly cheap ticket on Spirit to go hang out in the sun. When you start tagging the cost of a test on top, that is a non-trivial increase. You can fly from Baltimore down to Cancun for under $200 roundtrip, but the test is going to increase the cost of that by 50 percent… not to mention the hassle factor.
For a place like Hawai’i that went from requiring a 14-day quarantine to offering the alternative of a negative test, it was only good news. People weren’t going before, and now more are. But once you’ve already opened the floodgates, it’s harder to close them again.
This doesn’t even consider the logistical effort involved in actually making this mass-testing program function. So far, the US has failed miserably across the board on anything COVID-related that has required national coordination. Maybe that changes in a new administration, but it remains to be seen how quickly something like that could even be stood up.
On the whole, if this can be worked out, it’s still the right way forward. As the US continues to fall behind on vaccines, it becomes decreasingly likely that summer travel can rebound as many had hoped based on that alone. Testing IS the way out of this mess sooner rather than later. It just doesn’t come without consequences.