Why Mexico Likely Hates the Idea of COVID Testing for International Travel to the US

Government Regulation, Safety/Security

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

Data via Cirium

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.

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38 comments on “Why Mexico Likely Hates the Idea of COVID Testing for International Travel to the US

  1. Cranky Flier | Why Mexico Likely Hates the Idea of COVID Testing for International Travel to the US Fly Imelda Marcos Airways next time

  2. It’s not just the cost, testing isn’t as readily available either. Plus imagine flying down on a Thursday back Sunday, you’ve got to spend your Friday getting tested and hope for results back in time over a weekend while you’re gone?

    While ICU beds are close to capacity we’ll want to limit the number of people who might wind up taking up those beds. Once the virus is more under control we’ll want to limit further spread. But as challenging as testing has been in parts of the U.S. at certain times over the past year, it’s easier to get a test here than in many close-in international destinations people might go

    Permitting rapid antigen tests will make things much easier, and while they aren’t as good as PCR tests they’re quite good at finding anyone currently infectious and mass antigen testing would do a ton to limit spread compared to current policy – that limits travel from some destinations, but not many of the world’s hot spots.

  3. Curious – on this issue what is the political & social angle in Mexico? Are they testing? Requiring facemasks/ social distancing? All you need is a few asymptomatic individuals roming around to spread this pandemic to an unmanageable level & we know that Mexico doesn’t have the resources that the US & the EU have to combat the virus.

    1. Things are pretty bad down here. Masks and distancing are generally required but enforcement varies, especially in the tourist hotspots. Many areas of the country have few hospital beds available, and people are scrambling to find oxygen tanks and concentrators for family members who can’t get into a hospital. Testing capacity and speed varies wildly depending on what part of the country you’re in, and I don’t know if any state has testing rates that aren’t returning positive cases in the double digits.

      There’s no travel restrictions of any kind, including testing, other than nonessential land border crossings with the US are supposedly disallowed.

    2. Mexico is testing and requiring face masks to enter any enclosed environment. They also require hand washing /sanitization when you enter ANY store. And they take your temperature everywhere you go. It’s way more vigorous there than it is here.

  4. I agree that universal, global testing has to take place in order to prevent the retransmission of the virus.
    However, it is absolutely not true that the US alone has singularly failed to control this pandemic. The per capita covid death rate of death in multiple countries of Europe is not only higher than the US right now but also growing faster than the US.
    This is a pandemic. Pointing fingers, just as we saw yesterday, is counterproductive.
    Management of health care systems and disease policies including quarantine and lockdown requirements is largely the responsibility of state and local governments; that is part of the very same federal system of government that is the backbone of the federal system which includes the electoral college. Other countries have had much more national control and stricter nationwide lockdowns and the pandemic is no more under control than it is in the US.
    Specific to travel, it is possible to safely travel but people have to be responsible; there are alot of irresponsible people engaging in risky behavior during a pandemic including “letting it all hang out” on vacation.
    Imposing testing into the US will help slow the influx of new disease but the reality is that the US is still a cesspool of covid disease that other countries want to keep in the US. Testing has to go both ways to all countries to allow global travel to resume.

  5. Something is clearly very strange in the universe, as yet again I find myself agreeing with you, Tim. The US response to COVID – for a superpower, especially – has been embarrassingly disastrous. But the UK response has been equally ham-fisted, ditto the Brazilian response etc. Whilst many are quick to dismiss the effectiveness of the WHO (organisation, not the glorious rock group), they were pushing an agenda of test, test, test almost immediately – it was how those countries that got ahead of the virus managed to do so. In the UK, we still have almost non-existent COVID checks upon entry at present – but now that the virus is basically endemic throughout the whole of the UK (1 in 30 people in London are currently infected), much like in the US, somehow limiting entry to the country seems woefully inadequate. Vaccination efforts are being bodged by these same countries who have shown poor leadership during COVID, so it is clear protection through the vaccine isn’t coming to save the day for international (or domestic) travel, anytime soon; for example, current predictions put me approx. 35 millionth in line to receive my first vaccine shot in the UK, mid-way through the fall.

    It’s not really sitting on a plane that’s especially risky; the virus simply needs people to mix with other people (or, maybe, some mink or the occasional cat) – all travel (in planes or any other transport) facilitates those interactions. Simple as that.

  6. A negative COVID test 72 hours before travel means very little. All it means is that 72 hours before the flight, you weren’t in the roughly 48 hour pre-symptomatic phase (only about 10% of COVID cases are truly asymptomatic), with symptoms never developing. People shouldn’t be out in public at all with symptoms anyway, so in reality that means the main effect of testing is to catch people who are lying about not having symptoms. Obviously people do lie, so that’s something, but not much. And most importantly, it says absolutely nothing about whether you’re already exposed and incubating an infection. The only way to significantly reduce the number of travellers who bring the virus in is quarantine on arrival. (That can be 7 days followed by a negative test rather than the 14 days most jurisdictions use, it appears.) Of course, as the world’s hotspot, the US shouldn’t be *too* worried about incoming travellers bringing in more of the virus, since there are few local measures to circumvent. It’s the rest of the world that is rightly worried about travellers from the US circumventing local containment measures.

    Here in British Columbia, with per capita case loads and deaths lower than 49 states, public health orders prohibit even intra-provincial non-essential travel as well as all gatherings with anyone outside the household. I remain shocked and angry that other jurisdictions are taking this so not-seriously as to encourage long-distance travel without a quarantine. That cavalier attitude is a prototypical example of why this pandemic has gotten so bad, especially in this second wave!

    1. I should add that testing is absolutely essential at a public health level for tracking the spread of the virus and promptly contact tracing positive tests. But one negative test prior to travel says very little, and travel makes contact tracing much more difficult.

      In the US, where there is little effective contact tracing anyway, the impact of travel on contact tracing seems less severe.

      1. Alex,
        the US has given over 260 million tests, by far the largest in the world. Tests are available in most states by answering a few questions. Private insurance pays for testing if you have it; if not, states are covering it through federal grants.
        You are right that testing represents only a single point in time.
        btw, the constitutionality of restricting healthy Americans in their homes has not been tested but is probably not legal. Americans have freedoms other nationalities don’t have but all freedom requires responsibility. The freedom to move at least inside the US is a bedrock principle of American democracy.
        I have Canadian friends and business associates and they are not at all happy with the approach Canada is taking.
        and, again, the per capita (population normalized) death rate is higher in multiple other countries in the United States and is growing at a faster rate in multiple countries besides the US.

        1. Something about this whole thing doesn’t pass the sniff test… Why aren’t there mass graves in places like Africa? No way, places like that are following all of these measures that are recommended. Hmmmm

          1. There are some theories that people that are exposed to regular diseases might have better immunity. E. Asia countries have had more exposure to more viruses, many of which have originated in China or the Pearl River Delta region. Also, Africa uses hydroxychloro-whatever for malaria prevention and it has been linked to reduced covid impact. S. Africa is a hotspot right now, though. India is seeing much lower death rates than they expected and that is true for other S. Asian countries.
            I don’t want to debate it but those are some possible theories.

            1. I agree with your theory that exposure to other illnesses may increase immunity but Hydroxychloroquine does not prevent or treat Covid.

              Regardless, when the scientists dig in on the data over the next decade, it’ll be fascinating to see what they figure out.

              Personally, we should all remain in awe of how incredible science is. We’ve done in one year what it took literally decades for AIDS, etc.

          2. Well, partly down to the fact that they are exposed to deadly pathogens on a more regular basis then we are in the US, UK etc., so they know how to minimise risks of infection; and partly because of our arrogance in the US, UK etc. and self-righteous belief in ‘freedoms’ that mean people cannot sacrifice the tiniest thing for the greater good, even when that might be simply wearing a few layers of cloth over their faces, or maybe curtailing their god-given right to travel wherever them damn want, whenever they damn want to. Maybe.

        2. It’s possible that an effective approach would not be legal in the US, but that has little to do with what I was discussing. The issue is that a single negative test before travel says very little.

          And the availability of testing in the US is irrelevant to a proposed requirement for testing *prior to travel to* the US.

        3. In response to your comment on constitutionality, this has been argued in court over the past 200 years. States have broad rights to restrict travel during a pandemic. At the Federal level, it gets a little muddled as it’s a 10th amendment issue coupled with the Commerce Clause governing commerce between the states.

          I’m not taking one side or the other. Just commenting that the legal justification exists and is well established.

  7. “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.

    Testing IS the way out of this mess sooner rather than later. It just doesnâ??t come without consequences.”

    You clearly drink the liberal media Kool-aid. Nationally the USA has two vaccines developed in less than one year. State governments are responsible for the economy destroying measures that you see now. Look no closer than your Governor Newsom.

    Testing is the solution? That is laughable. Have those at risk take measures to protect themselves and everyone else lives normally.

    1. Ronlee – Stop with the liberal vs conservative bullshit. I think we’re all aware that this kind of rhetoric is in no way useful.

      Nationally the USA has two vaccines developed in less than one year.

      The US had little to nothing to do with the development of the vaccines other than providing money for one of them. That is not anything that required national coordination. That just required making money available. The part that required coordination, including distribution of the vaccine, has not gone well.

      > State governments are responsible for the economy destroying measures that you see now. Look no closer than your Governor Newsom.

      This is completely irrelevant to the point. I’ll spell this out clearly.

      1) Testing for all international arrivals is unquestionably a federal function that requires massive levels of coordination to achieve.
      2) There has not been an example of a federally-coordinate COVID response that has been implemented quickly and successfully.

      I don’t care if that’s because the feds have delegated to the states and you think that’s good or not. The reasoning behind it is not important.
      If you want to respond with examples of a federal response that has gone well when it comes to COVID, then that would further the discussion and be welcomed. Otherwise, just keep the partisan crap to yourself.

  8. Great analysis as always, Brett. To your point, the cat’s already out of the bag in Mexico and there’s no closing the barn door. I also fear that those who are mostly to jump at a $200 R/T to CUN are the least likely to comply with wearing a mask. On a positive note, I’ve heard from friends who visited PVR over the holiday that the hotels and restaurants were aggressive in enforcement.

    We just returned from the Big Island on Monday and while Hawaii’s requirements for entry were confusing at times (certain providers only provide certain tests in certain locations, etc), we figured it out and are extremely glad we went. Given the high mask compliance and the fact that all visitors were tested prior to arrival AND upon arrival, we actually felt quite safe. On top of that, the locals seemed genuinely pleased to have us. Only gripe was the fact that United did only two beverage services (and no meal services) on our 9.5 hour flight to HNL. A little warning to buy a meal beforehand would have been appreciated.

    Seeing all those happy Kiwis celebrating in NZ made me a little jealous that our federal response wasn’t more aggressive right out of the gate but with testing and “bubbles,” I think we can get back to traveling.

  9. National coordination helped greatly with the augmentation of sparse supplies and testing kits. As someone who has been treating nursing home patients exclusively since this began, I’m always put off by people who say there wasn’t co-ordinated response. The only thing the government could do was to ramp up production of anything needed for those of us on the front lines. The roll out for the monoclonal antibody has been a real difference maker.

    Quite frankly, the federal government is not really geared to rapidly respond to most anything new. I don’t care who was in office or who someone wants to blame. All of us on the ground fighting it day to day were the ones co-ordinating.

    Distribution of the vaccine went very well here. The problem has been that many of the initial targeted recipients…REFUSED the vaccine. It is a tragedy that so many who want it can’t get it and those that could have gotten it have refused. Up to 50% or more of nursing home staff here have refused for a variety of reasons. I have spent more than 20 hours now in educational in service efforts trying to reverse those numbers. The CDC did move more rapidly than usual with issuing guidelines, but it was a learning process for everyone and a massive amount of anecdotal info. Again, the vaccines are rolling out at a pace that far outstrips the growing number of cases. It will just take a just a few more weeks for that to be reflected in the numbers. Again, the refusal of the vaccine for those who work in healthcare will astound you.

    For aviation, as CF has pointed out, at this point, a simple 15 minute POC test should really take care of this issue of travel allowed or not. Just roll it out to our most needed travel routes one at a time as supplies allow (NYC-LONDON) comes to mind. The FAA should have already addressed this at this point. It may be the cost factor or the implementation hurdles, but it is not getting the attention that it needs on a federal level and I fully agree that it has not been handled as well as it should have.

    So feds have done well with PPE and testing supplies and an even better job with getting the vaccine where it was (yes, Pfizer did their own), but almost everything else was handled at state, local and corporate levels.

    1. David C – Thanks for this. I’m curious about what you say about testing kits. I thought that in the beginning, the feds opted to create their own test instead of adopting the WHO’s approach (or using that temporarily until the CDC approach could be produced) which slowed things down. Then the test didn’t work, and there was testing scarcity for a really long time until things caught up. ( https://www.propublica.org/article/cdc-coronavirus-covid-19-test) Then there was the swab shortage ( https://www.npr.org/2020/05/12/853930147/despite-early-warnings-u-s-took-months-to-expand-swab-production-for-covid-19-te).
      Maybe the feds eventually helped it get to where it is now, but in the beginning, it looked like they only made things worse with their decisions.

      For supplies, there’s the problem of the neglected Strategic National Stockpile ( https://hbr.org/2020/09/why-the-u-s-still-has-a-severe-shortage-of-medical-supplies).
      And the government hemmed and hawed before trying to use the Defense Production Act to get things moving ( https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/us-medical-supply-chains-failed-covid-deaths-followed/ ).

      As for vaccine distribution, no doubt that people refusing the vaccine is a part of that, but there have been plenty of issues even without that.
      Pfizer had offered more doses to the US, but when we turned them down, I believe they sold to the EU instead. And Pfizer has even said that it was ready to ship more, but the government wasn’t ready to receive them ( https://www.fiercepharma.com/manufacturing/pfizer-beats-back-accusations-pandemic-vaccine-production-hurdles).
      There wasn’t any attempt to do any sort of national prioritization, so I can’t say that failed. It just didn’t happen and was left to the states.

      1. Actually, I’ve never seen anything in medicine ramp up so quickly in 25 years of private practice. Healthcare is not meant to move at the speed it was tasked to do under these circumstances. A lot had to be learned and learned quickly. Unfortunate political leanings got in the way on both sides and hysterical reporting only made things worse for those of us trying to do something about it. This is a complex pathogenic pathway that is fairly treatable compared to last March.

        We actually got testing ramped up quickly here once we figured out the who, what, why and how that it needed to be done. Was amazing what was put in place by April through federal and state grants/co-ordination. There is reading about it and then there is working in the middle of doing it.

        Hopefully, our beloved commercial aviation industry will bounce quickly and we can enjoy columns talking about the rapid hub expansion and capacity growth demanded by a public returning to the skies.

        1. In a 1/1/2021 Newsweek interview Dr. Fauci said “We don’t know that vaccinating people prevents infection.” He also agree that after vaccination limiting travel should continue. What is benefit?

          1. Not entirely sure what you mean by “what is benefit”, but it seems pretty clear from reading the interview that Fauci was saying people who get vaccinated *right now* shouldn’t stop following public health measures simply because they got vaccinated.

            That will change when we know more about the vaccine’s effect on transmission / asymptomatic infection, and when vaccination is more widely available.

    2. thank you for your comments, David C
      There are some that are bound and determined to turn this pandemic into a political football regardless of whether the facts support them or not.
      Some people simply cannot admit that their own state officials are responsible for the success and failures of this disease more than any other factor.
      The US is and will be a federal republic. That reality is as significant to the events of Jan 6 in DC as it has been to covid for nearly a year.

      1. The jump in Mexico bookings. I would think some benefitted, but I guess it was not very good yielding fruit to pick.

        1. David C – Well, let’s look at seats. This doesn’t say how they’ll do, but if we look in Jan, here’s how seat changes year-over-year break down.

          Spirit +103.3% (up 24,975 seats) JetBlue +49.7% (up 13,204 seats) Delta +19.1% (up 48,655 seats) American +17.2% (up 55,898 seats) Alaska +15.0% (up 13,919 seats) United -10.6% (down 31,304 seats) Sun Country -13.3% (down 2,865 seats) Southwest -13.3% (down 10,190 seats) Frontier -45.1% (down 16,018 seats)

          So there are differently some very different strategies here.

  10. I hope A4A is including airline crew as “Travelers” otherwise there is hole in the testing policy which could compromise passengers and increase the spread of Covid.

  11. With people starting to be vaccinated, has any (major) country stated yet that anyone with the vaccine can enter without quarantining, etc?

      1. I think you are going to have to wait another month or two before you see any easing. Numbers (mainly mortality rates and hospitalizations) need to start coming down..way down. With the current vaccine schedule, it will be late this month to middle of February for the typical businessperson group to get availability. Then it is a 3-4 week wait for the second in the series of vaccinations followed by a 2 week period before reaching the 94%-96% rate (It’s up to 80% protection with the first shot FYI).

        So if I am an airline planner, I still have a ways to go before getting some glimpses of who is going to open up first and what demand will really look like. I would not want to be responsible for looking into that crystal ball.

  12. And China is still not allowed to enter US.

    Compared the COVID cases nowadays, it’s really not about mitigating this pandemic, it’s just politics.

  13. Cranky great analysis, would you think why is that SJO and LIR have not benefitted as much as the Mexican destinations?

    What about those who have been vaccinated? Could they show proof of vaccination in order to have the COVID testing waived?

    1. Joe – I don’t really know. Mexico is way more popular in general, but also, Costa Rica has seen a fair bit of new service get added. Or maybe people just want to stay relatively close to home.

      Vaccines… no waiver in the CDC info.

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