Airline Groups Continue to Yell Into the Void Against COVID Testing for Travel

Government Regulation

It is no surprise at all to see airline lobbying organizations try to push the narrative that border closings are a bad idea. After all, border closings are bad for business for their members. But the thing is… these groups are right. Border closings ARE a bad idea, and more importantly, they do not help to stop the spread of COVID. And it’s not just border closings but also lesser travel restrictions that act as a deterrent to those wanting to travel without providing much of a benefit, if any.

Things have moved fast during the pandemic, so data hasn’t always been an option on which to base decisions. With time, that continues to change, and now, there are two new studies focusing in on the waste that is pre-travel COVID testing.

Common sense already suggested that blunt objects like border closings were senseless. With Omicron, for example, the idea that closing the border to people from southern Africa — just because that’s where Omicron was first detected — would stop the spread is laughable.

The silliness of this plan is just too obvious. First, the countries were only preventing people FROM those countries from entering. But citizens of the European countries who were visiting down there could still come back home. Sure they had to quarantine, but you know who else could have quarantined? Citizens of South African countries. But that’s not even the biggest issue.

The biggest issue is that COVID spreads silently before symptoms start showing. There was no way that when they first discovered widespread transmission in southern Africa that they could somehow contain it there. Omicron had already spread all over, and no weak restrictions were going to stop it.

It’s that last point that I imagine is particularly relevant when we talk about pre-departure testing. It’s not only that symptoms don’t show, but tests may not show positive either. But does that mean they shouldn’t be used? Couldn’t they still help? Apparently not.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Airports Council International Europe (ACI Europe) put out a release Tuesday saying that the travel restrictions, specifically pre-departure testing, had “little impact” on the spread of Omicron. They cited two studies, one in Italy and the other in Finland.

The studies come from Oxera and Edge Health, and they are said to be independent. I wouldn’t even know how to follow that up to confirm, so I suppose… take it or leave it. But they did put together a presentation for IATA and ACI Europe highlighting their findings in both countries.

Let’s start with Italy, where they introduced pre-departure testing requirements for people flying from other EU countries into Italy from mid-December. Before that, intra-EU travel was not restricted, and there was significant backlash when they reintroduced these testing rules.

At the time, Omicron had yet to take off in the country, but it didn’t matter. In this study, the teams built a model meant to show COVID infection rates, and they were able to get results that closely mirrored what’s actually happening. Then they were able to tweak inputs to find out what it would have looked like if no testing rule has been put into place. Here’s what the model shows:

Chart via Oxera/Edge Health

The models run with both scenarios look basically the same, meaning the testing program didn’t add value. But they weren’t done there. What if Italy had introduced the testing rule on November 24, the day South Africa announced the variant?

Chart via Oxera/Edge Health

As you can see, it had some kind of impact, but it wasn’t as much as you might expect to see. There would have been a slight delay in the spread, and the peak would be a bit lower. Maybe you would make the decision that this makes it worthwhile, but you also have to remember that November 24 is the day that South Africa reported Omicron to the WHO. That is just not plausible — nor is it practical — to think rules could or should have been put in place every time a variant gets reported.

What about Finland? Well, that was a bit different.

Finland waited until December 28 to introduce pre-departure tests for all arrivals, even within the EU. It was a temporary measure meant to go through January 16, but it was ultimately useless.

The numbers show the same thing as in Italy’s first chart above… there was no real impact to the trajectory of cases by implementing this testing rule. But what about if they had put restrictions in place on November 24? It would have made barely a blip. They say the number of cases at the peak would have been 2 percent higher than what we have today… in the completely impossible event that restrictions were put in place on November 24.

Pre-departure testing seems to have a very minimal positive impact on health. On the negative side, it stifles travel and economic growth. You need a balance between those two, and now with more and more studies, it would seem to make sense to stop with these jerky travel restriction changes and put in a uniform policy that can both provide political cover — because we all know that’s a big piece of this — but also not be an enormous burden on travelers.

34 comments on “Airline Groups Continue to Yell Into the Void Against COVID Testing for Travel

  1. One obvious issue with all this analysis is that it’s looking at the data and making the (extremely simplified looking) model after we have a lot of information and data on Omicron. Hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to say “we should/shouldn’t have done this” when we now know all about the spread, duration, severity, incubation period, vaccine effectiveness and so on about Omicron.

    But when it was first reported, we didn’t know any of that. And the restrictions were never meant to stop it completely, but rather buy more time to slow it down while initial studies were underway, even if it were just a few days.

    1. Oh, and when I just googled “Oxera and Edge Health” the very first result is “Edge Health and Oxera have been commissioned by Manchester Airports Group (‘MAG’) to consider the impact of travel restrictions on the spread of variants in …” so there’s absolutely no way I’d call that independent or unbiased.

  2. Agreed with your assessment (despite who commissioned the study). I’ve been a big proponent of pre departure testing, vaccinations, etc, especially when we knew so little about the virus. As we move from pandemic to endemic, I think we need to take a page out of Denmark’s playbook and say, it’s time.

  3. And all of this on the heels of their March 2021 study that backed testing as the key to restarting safe and effective international air travel…..in a study also commissioned by the travel industry.

    As another commenter said, a simple google search returns who paid for the study. Kind of surprised Brett didn’t think of that before posting the face value comment.

  4. At some point people are going to have to realize that we will have to live with this disease. And testing and masking are not effective at containing it.

    You think testing at the border works to keep it out? It does NOT, and here is why. Testing only reveals when a person is already contagious; it does not reveal a person who WILL be. It does nothing to tell us that someone was exposed 2 days ago, and does not have symptoms yet. You would literally have the same results if the customs people asked everyone, “do you have Covid”?

    And to the chagrin of a lot of my fellow Democrats, masking does not stop the spread either. The CDC numbers show it clearly. Example: California, Washington, and Illinois have statewide mask mandates, and Texas, Florida, and Massachusetts do not. Here are the peak COVID case numbers from January, 7-day rates per 100k, and the latest from yesterday.

    California peak 2,158/100,000….Feb 1 1,249.100,000
    Washington peak 2,215….Feb 1 1,617
    Illinois peak 1,795…Feb 1 616
    Texas peak 1,562…Feb 1 817
    Florida peak 2,139…Feb 1 715
    Massachusetts peak 2,510…Feb 1 624

    As you can see, the numbers are pretty similar regardless of mask mandates. Or testing mandates. Time for us to understand this disease, and move it into the flu category – something to be dealt with, not feared.

    1. You’re not correct about masking – proper masking DOES* have a significant effect on reducing and slowing spread of COVID (and other airborne disease – hello, Flu, where are you??). The trouble is masking works when the majority of people wear proper masks – and that simply isn’t happening in the US, the UK, and most of Europe. I totally agree that the border restrictions have been shown to be pointless, though.

      *https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33431650/
      *https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33273115/

      1. If people aren’t wearing them properly then why mandate it at all? The numbers in all places show this mandate is completely useless.

        Saying it would work if people wore them properly is silly, since they don’t. And it is t necessary for this disease at this time anyway, since it is quite benign for the vast majority of the population.

        We dont mandate masks during flu season. The way it SHOULD be is that those who are at risk should wear a mask, and PROPERLY, and leave everyone else alone.

        1. saying that 3 months, 6 months, 1 year ago would have got you cancelled. We knew then what we know now. Same studies the CDC references now were referenced back then but for some reason it is acceptable now to say… atleast for some. Masks are simply virtue signaling and political cover. They do nothing more than covering your cough with your arm would do; just like the good ole days. If we don’t move on now then we never will.

          1. John G and Brycen,

            I did say the same thing you are saying about the uselessness of masks and testing mandates months ago when Cranky had articles about Covid and the airlines and you would have thought I was asking everyone to go out and shoot their parents. The reactions were that overwrought.

            All one has to do is wander around a grocery store and observe how many people are not wearing masks correctly or wearing scarves/bandannas that even the CDC says do no good.

            To give you an example of the ridiculousness of the mask mandates. Last weekend my wife and I went to a whiskey tasting festival. We had to wear a mask to get in but as soon as we got in, nobody was wearing a mask as we moved from table to table sampling whiskey and talking to the vendors.

            Six months ago we would have been accused of attending a “super spreader” event.

            There is no doubt in my mind that both the mask and testing mandates “are simply virtue signaling and political cover” and to make a LOT of money for the testing companies.

            1. There is a huge difference between testing mandates and mask rules, however. The mask rules are a minor burden at most. Whether annoying or not, it is a really tiny thing that doesn’t impact a person significantly in any way. Testing, however, is a huge burden. Not only do you have to get the test, but you risk being stuck somewhere for a long time if you test positive. If there is a focus on fixing any of this, it should be on the things with the most burden first. Masks are just a non-issue.

            2. Cranky:

              You are missing my point.

              I totally agree with you that testing is a huge burden on travelers and not effective as you point out.

              It is also a huge burden to travelers if they get removed from a flight or banned from an airline for not wearing a mask (also ineffective) properly.

              My argument is not eliminating testing mandates or mask mandates. My argument is eliminating testing mandates AND mask mandates.

              It makes sense that if you are talking about eliminating burdens to travel, why not eliminate all of the burdens that don’t work or are counterproductive.

              I am in favor of killing as many birds with one stone as you can!

            3. Keith – Nobody is missing your point. You want all restrictions gone. My only point is that the masking thing is such a minor thing that I don’t care. It’s almost like second nature now to just carry one with me and take it on and off. It’s almost irrelevant… and I have glasses so I have it worse than most.

              If someone gets removed from a flight for not wearing a mask, they have nobody to blame but themself. The same can’t be said for someone who tests positive. These are completely different scenarios, one easily fixed.

        2. No, you’re right. To hell with everyone else. Spin the bottle and let fate decide.

          The absolute state of ‘civilization’.

          1. Please disengage from your belief-based system and engage with the evidence. Neighbouring states with and without mask mandates/vaccine passports/etc have had identical experiences, to use one example, of which there are many, NYC and NJ. Flu also disappeared in Sweden which had very few restrictions. The flu virus was outcompeted by covid.
            It’s not a matter of “to hell with everyone else”. It’s a matter of respecting that the 99+% of people for whom covid poses minuscule risk should be free to live normal lives. Those at risk should take the precautions they deem necessary to reduce their chances of becoming ill. Mortality data is the same the world over. The old and elderly frail/comorbid are the victims, moreso because of particularly mild flu years in the years preceding covid. Average age of covid death is about 84 years, higher than average life expectancy. And that’s before trying to filter for “died of/died with” data.

      2. Cloth masks reduce the spread by some 10%, according a study conducted by the University of Waterloo. So, basically useless virtue signaling that does little aside from making the wearer feel like they’re “doing something”. Now, N95 masks do hamper transmission, but they also need to be worn properly, properly cleaned/replaced when needed, and a tight seal maintained. The average person who wears one to the airport doesn’t know any of this – as I personally witnessed on Friday. They just slap it on, pulling it on and off when eating or drinking, as they did a cloth mask.

        The Scandinavians had this right from the beginning: concentrate on protecting the most vulnerable and deal with everyone else by going for herd immunity. None of these lockdowns, masking, closures, etc have done a damn thing to stop this.

      3. your statement that masks work but people don’t wear them right, but then say “hello, flu, where are you?” points to masks seeming not to work against covid, at least not substantially, while they seem to be pretty effective against the flu, even with truly abysmal compliance with how they’re worn (this makes sense because flu is famously a ‘dirty hands’ disease, transmitted via droplets, while covid appears to be properly airborne).

        the links you shared point that masks work, however, give me a little time, and i’ll write you a “narrative review” that people can walk on water. there is simply no proper experimental studies on this (like the hastily and poorly conducted trials/experiments like the vaccines, which lacked proper representation for the most part), and real life is brutally proving that masks don’t work across the board (florida, sweden, etc.). these “narrative reviews” and “studies” publicized by the NIH simply cannot decouple mask-wearing from other measures such as closures, mandatory testing, etc. in germany, the progression is typically masks then varying levels of lockdowns.

        i would LOVE masks to work, that would be a really swift way to fix the pandemic (we should be aware of this after 2 years), and for another flu pandemic, i’d be whole heartedly for it, but these horrid “narrative reviews” are giving a fake sense of security for people who are in real danger from covid (namely elderly and obese).

  5. I think there are relatively few instances where departure testing is a good idea — the one that pops out is seasonal tourist spots where the population fluctuates wildly and is remote. Think islands (Hawaii) or tourist beach locations (Latin American beaches). That way (hypothetically) you don’t run the risk of overwhelming the smaller hospitals by keeping the sick at home.

    Still . . the easiest way to do this is to require vaccination. No test out without a very very valid medical reason. That turns COVID into (for most) a cold and is manageable. You then shift the risk burden to the traveler: you might get sick by traveling, but you pose not additional risk to the local health care system. This saves money, saves time, decreases cost. How is this not a win-win for locales that want to require this?

    1. My question is, how would departure testing help Hawaii? The test doesn’t tell you people who have been exposed but have not developed symptoms yet.

      To Bobber, a question. Some people are deathly allergic to peanuts. Should we outlaw peanut products because of it? If someone has a fully compromised immune system and cannot be exposed to germs, do we shut things down for that? No.

      1. @JohnG Those were 2 questions. We don’t ‘outlaw’ peanut products because, by and large, it is possible to avoid exposure to them (with proper guidance and labelling) – good luck in avoiding Omicron, unless you are willing to live as a hermit. Your second question suggests that you have a simplistic take on COVID susceptibility. It is not only people with underlying health issues that are vulnerable – Sars-Cov2 has shown its’ effectiveness at making healthy people seriously ill, or dead – of course risk varies considerably depending upon multiple factors. But you’re dismissing taking REALLY easy mitigations (i.e. wearing a mask) because, what? You’re inconvenienced by it? Grow up. Mask wearing is a pain in the ass, and I wouldn’t choose to live my daily life wearing them constantly – but because I genuinely do give a sh1t about other people, perhaps people who carry a greater risk burden than I do, I’m content to keep wearing a mask. But me wearing a mask in a room of 100 people, of which 95 aren’t, completely defeats the purpose of wearing a mask.

        I’m no longer amazed, but just depressed at how little people are willing to sacrifice for the benefit of others.

        1. Bobber, wearing a mask when around others is not a “really easy mitigation” to many folks. It’s intrusive, not effective, and not worth it.

          Especially when you consider that properly vaccinated people are generally well protected against the disease. It is NOT my responsibility to protect someone that can be bothered to protect themselves by getting vaccinated. An unvaccinated person that gets it from me and dies? That is 100% on them. Not me.

          And if someone is fully vaccinated but has a weakened immune response? Their protection is again on THEM. Not me.

          In a free society, people live with risks. We could save half a million Americans a year if we dropped the speed limit to 20 miles per hour. We choose not to, because that would create hardships and take away from the lives of everyone. We live with the risk of highway deaths. It’s a balance. Our response to things like Covid should be similar.

          And in case, when masking CLEARLY does not help prevent cases or deaths, it’s silly to keep requiring them.

  6. While I don’t fault them for being alone in this, this industry continues to believe and operate under the assumption that the end of COVID is always “just around the corner” and that the current “wave” will be the final one.

    What I am *not* seeing from this industry is proactive planning to prepare for future “waves” of COVID-19, or of other pandemic-level viruses. But, airlines certainly aren’t great at being proactive, they’d much rather live at the edge of reactivity and then cry about it when otherwise mitigable crises blow up in their faces (staffing “shortages,” 5G rollout, pilot “shortage,” well-forecasted weather disasters, etc.).

    But this is the cost of doing business at the absolute threshold of productivity, where one slight perturbance to the spinning top causes it to explode into hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces that must be re-assembled, usually at the expense of the consumer and the taxpayer.

  7. Airline groups are absolutely correct in wanting to end testing requirements. Testing has always been security theater and is only enriching testing companies at the cost of the airlines and the traveling public. For example, I for one do not plan to fly international when I have to hope and pray that I test negative just to return home. The gov’t, nor the airlines are offering to pay for a quarantine if I test positive. Nor is my employer going to excuse extra time off because of a positive test. Mind you this could be a totally asymptomatic positive or false positive. Doesn’t matter, still can’t get on the plane so I’m choosing to just not play the game and many others aren’t either. Who does that hurt – well, the airlines for one. I do know some people that went to MX and one got a positive test that was made to “go away” with a small bribe. Again, if that’s happening what’s the point of this? Putting money into pockets of 3rd parties that are doing nothing to “protect” us.

  8. Working with covid everyday since March of 2020, I can tell you with Omicron it is way past time to stop the silliness of the onboard mask mandate, the border closings etc. As CF points out, the efforts to stop it are more for appearances sake.
    Time for personal responsibility to resume and authoritarianism to take a back seat.

    1. Being asked to wear a mask during the deadliest pandemic in modern history is not “authoritarianism,” no matter how much it hurts your feelings. You can disagree with the effectiveness or necessity of the policy without using false hyperbole in your arguments. “Authoritarian” is a pretty loaded description. Careful.

      1. In the first place, we weren’t just asked to wear masks. People were forced to give up their livelihoods, and they were put into forced detention in their homes. That IS authoritarian. And that IS what happened.

        The problem is multi-faceted. The goalposts keep moving…which to be fair, is because the situation keeps changing. But people were told just stay home and stay safe and we will flatten the curve it will be fine. Then if we just all get vaccinated it will be fine. Then if we just all wear a mask and avoid crowds it will be fine. Except it’s never “fine”, it’s always the next variant and the next wave and the next time we have to do all this again. And then people stop listening, because they don’t know what to believe.

        I will say this: the idea that we can just isolate a virus to get rid of it is wishful thinking. Not in today’s world. That somehow if people avoid crowds and wear masks and get shot it will go away. Nope. It ain’t going away, any more than the flu and cancer and war are not going away.

        1. The more extreme measures did help…but that was before vaccines. Without the initial pre-vaccine “curve flattening” we would have had hundreds of thousands more deaths in the US alone and our hospitals would have been overwhelmed. And if you look at the flu numbers for the winter of 2000, the masks and the social distancing and the sanitizing did make a difference, with the side effect of driving seasonal flu numbers down dramatically.

          That said, now that we have vaccines it’s time to look to COVID moving from pandemic to endemic and planning for that. I’m not sure if we’re quite there yet, but at this point we’re at lest close here in the US. We still may need selective testing based on where you’ve traveled from or where you’re traveling to, and just as with the annual flu it’s a good idea to wash/sanitize your hands frequently and cover your mouth when sneezing or coughing (that’s just good manners anyway), but it’s probably time to put the masks away outside of medical settings.

          1. Without wishing to step into the mask/no-mask debate, or even to share my personal opinions on this, I wanted to thank you for your comment. It is very even-handed and reasonable compared to many of those on here, and it is appreciated.

            I think most people agree that we (humanity, America, each country and political subdivision in the world, each individual, however you define such a group) will have to transition from viewing COVID as pandemic to endemic, and probably in the near future. The challenge is when, how, how quickly, and to what extent our behaviors and habits (and the “new normal”) will differ from what they were before COVID.

            For me personally, I’ll know that we’re “past COVID” (in terms of it being more of an endemic thing, and less of an epidemic thing) when I can alert my physician’s receptionist to concernst my nose issues and allergies (which existed and were treated by the same doc since long before COVID) and not have the office staff treat me as a pariah and order me outside until the doc comes out in a moonsuit and swabs me for an “instant” (20 minute) COVID test that comes back negative.

            Those concerns may have been (or may still be) reasonable and warranted, but once COVID becomes part of the “new normal”, they will (hopefully) not be. I just hope that that happens before too many ENTs and respiratory docs move to other specialities, or retire early. COVID and COVID-related precautions have made getting help and treatment difficult for people with mild seasonal allergies (let alone more serious conditions like asthma, pneumonia, emphysema, etc), though I guess it could be much worse.

  9. I live in Asia, and I can tell you without any doubt that travel bans have been 100% effective at reducing (and in certain cases, like Western Australia, eliminating) COVID-19.

    That study is the equivalent of a high school student arguing that he should stop studying because he failed failed the test and therefore his past studying didn’t work.

    It’s amazing at how low we can go.

    1. Jake, at what cost to your society? You went two years without people being able to travel abroad, or have family visit from abroad. Your people spent months in forced home detention.

    2. In what reality are you living in Asia? Look at the recent spikes in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, etc. A virus cannot be controlled by sensible human intervention. The notion that we can do so is just the height of conceit.

      1. Even though there are spikes in case numbers in Asia, the cases per population as well as the number of hospitalizations and deaths is still way way lower than the US or Europe. So yes, they are doing something right.

  10. The studies come from Oxera and Edge Health, and they are said to be independent. I wouldn’t even know how to follow that up to confirm, so I suppose… take it or leave it.

    You’re kind of telling on yourself no?

  11. One point that I don’t recall seeing made here is the impact that pre-departure testing has on medical systems and medical providers, given that at-home tests often aren’t accepted for travel.

    Beyond the mere inconvenience to travelers, is it really a good idea to make an otherwise healthy or symptom-free passenger visit a health care provider or a testing site to be tested before their flight? Doing so not only exposes the traveler to potentially sick people at the testing sick (whom the traveler may actually catch COVID from, despite social distancing, masks, and other measures), but also ties up valuable medical resources, particularly the time of nurses/pharmacists/etc, who are very short-staffed right now.

    I’d argue that rather than test many healthy and symptom-free people merely as a process of checking the box travel, the time/effort of our medial providers and testing labs would be better spent (and have a better, bigger impact on reducing the spread of COVID) testing and helping sick people and those with symptoms.

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Cranky Flier