In the last couple weeks, two things happened that made me look even closer at COVID air travel rules than ever before. First, I got a symptomatic breakthrough case of COVID after having received the Pfizer vaccine earlier this year. Second, Cranky Concierge started receiving more and more people either inquiring about or actually canceling international travel this fall. After looking into this more deeply, I found myself getting angrier and angrier.
Both the US government and the airlines are going to ruin this travel recovery if they don’t get their acts together and implement sensible policies.
What has become clear this summer is that the Delta variant is ready when you are. Vaccinated? You might be prepared, but with Delta being so highly transmissible, there’s a better chance you’ll get infected than you probably thought. The good news is that if you are vaccinated, the chances of you ending up in the hospital or dead are tiny. It’s probably too early to know an accurate rate per 100,000 vaccinated people, but I’ll bet it ends up being less than the flu during a bad season.
Yes, kids under 12 are a concern since they can’t get vaccinated, but so far they still tend to have much better outcomes than adults… and a vaccine is coming. As for unvaccinated adults in the US, frankly, I don’t care what happens to them. They’ve done this to themselves, and the consequences are their problem. (Though please get the shot, so you don’t become a breeding ground for even worse variants, people.)
Because there is a vaccine, we need to be managing this differently than we did a year ago, but we aren’t doing that. Should we still require masking while the virus is spreading rapidly? Yes, we should. But should we still have sweeping travel bans and rigid but useless testing requirements? No, we should not.
The Government Fails in Two Ways
The US government is making two main mistakes here. First, you have the requirement for Americans to get tested within 3 days before returning to the US if they travel abroad. If they test positive, they are stuck until they get better. That’s not something that everyone can or is willing to risk.
This is bad policy, but what makes it even more ridiculous is that the tests are far too inaccurate to be trusted as gospel. Sure there are some tests that are more accurate than others, but those aren’t required. You can use something like the Abbott BinaxNOW do-it-yourself test (with eMed’s virtual assistance). These are cheap, and they look like pregnancy tests with two pink lines if you have COVID and one if you don’t.
Apparently BinaxNOW only catches positive tests 84.6 percent of the time in people within 7 days of the onset of symptoms. That means 15 percent of people who are sick can get a false negative test and still come home. I don’t know what the numbers look like for people who are asymptomatic. (I should note, my wife and I did this test when we first thought we had it. I came back positive, but she was wrongly shown as negative.)
If the tests are wrong often, and the most likely outcome is a mild case for the vaccinated, why are we forcing travelers to stay abroad if they get sick? It’s not like the travel ban has prevented new variants from getting into the US. Refusing entry to Americans who test positive is a 2020 answer, not one that has a place in the world today.
On the other side, we have foreign citizens, many of whom aren’t allowed in the US thanks to arbitrary rules that were put in place more than a year ago and — like the testing rule — have no relevance in today’s world. The European Union is the worst example of this. It was put on the list when outbreaks began in Italy at the very beginning of the pandemic. Now the ban remains simply because of inertia.
In the week before I wrote this, the countries with the highest number of new daily cases per 100,000 people were Fiji, Botswana, and Georgia. None of those are on the CDC banned list. But Poland, which has a tiny fraction of those cases? That’s on the banned list. And the ban is crazy. If you’ve been in those countries at any time in the last 14 days, you can’t come to the US… unless you want to lie. There are ways around it which makes this whole game even sillier.
The Airlines Share In the Pain
I’ve reserved much of my ire for the government so far, but the airlines deserve their share as well. When I tested positive, I had a trip coming to Seattle three days later. I knew I wasn’t going to be taking that trip. But I had another trip that was 14 days later, and I already knew I wouldn’t be allowed to go.
I was booked to fly on United, and United has set its rules for all travelers as follows:
- You have not tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 10 days and are not awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test.
- You have reviewed CDC guidelines on the symptoms of COVID-19 and have not experienced any in the last 14 days.
- You have completed your quarantine after your last exposure to COVID-19 or you met the CDC criteria to forego quarantine because you have been fully vaccinated and have no symptoms.
That’s right. You have to be symptom-free for 14 days. Let’s say I got sick after I took my outbound flight. If I had to be symptom-free for 14 days before I could board a United flight again, it might be a month before I could come home. Sure, you can lie, if you’re able to hide your symptoms, but that is not the kind of behavior airlines should be encouraging. Besides, this requirement is not based in science or reality anyway.
The CDC itself says that infected travelers can stop taking precautions and isolating 10 days after symptom onset as long as there hasn’t been a fever for over 24 hours and other symptoms are improving. No symptoms but you’ve tested positive? CDC still says after 10 days you’re good to go. The only exception appears to be those who are immuno-compromised or those with severe illness (in the hospital) who should wait 20 days.
I asked United why it wasn’t aligned with the CDC. The response?
The requirements of our Ready to Fly Checklist are in line with CDC guidance and we are not more strict than they are.
So apparently United itself doesn’t even understand the CDC guidance which can’t bode well for travelers or employees trying to figure this out. My first assumption here was that United simply tried to align with CDC guidance for unvaccinated travelers who have been exposed to the virus, not vaccinated travelers nor those who test positive. But after back and forth with the airline’s communications team, I was told that the first bullet point applies to those who test positive while the second two only apply to those who are exposed. It doesn’t say this anywhere publicly, and I imagine it would be hard to convince an eagle-eyed gate agent that this was the case anyway. I’m not sure if they just made that up or if they are impressively bad at putting the policy into words.
Yes, the CDC deserves some blame for being as clear as mud, but United should be doing a lot better than this. As if it’s not hard enough deciphering what United means, other airlines all have different rules which make it even more confusing.
American says you have to be symptom-free for 10 days, again well above and beyond CDC guidance. I also asked American why it wasn’t aligned with the CDC, and I was told “we’re in the process of updating our attestation language to align with CDC guidance.” Since CDC guidance hasn’t changed for some time, I interpret this as “uh, well, since you brought it up, we probably should line up with what CDC says.” I was given no timeline for that change.
JetBlue has the same policy as American… at least, it does until American changes… assuming it eventually does so. And American’s other domestic partner Alaska? It’s gone totally off on its own and says travelers can’t have had symptoms in the last 72 hours. I’m sure all those codeshare passengers are really keeping up on this.
Southwest is closer to CDC guidance in that it says you just can’t have symptoms when you fly. But CDC says you’re ok if it’s been 10 days since symptom onset and the symptoms are improving. Southwest doesn’t care if they’re improving. Symptoms have to be gone.
The only airline doing this the right way is Delta which seems to actually be following CDC protocol for those who have been infected. I guess that’s what happens when you hire yourself a Chief Health Officer. You have plenty of people to actually pay attention to these things.
All these bad government and airline policies do is confuse travelers and prevent them from booking trips. Oh, and they scare the hell out of people, sometimes enough to get them to cancel their travels. That is not what we should be doing in the US right now. People need to know that if they get sick abroad, they can come home. And if they get sick, they need to know that CDC guidance will be followed by travel providers. This absurd collection of senseless requirements is just making everything worse, and it is only going to hurt the recovery without providing a real benefit.