Biden Team Cool to Preflight Virus Tests Floated by DOT, CDC

President Joe Biden’s administration isn’t seriously considering an imminent coronavirus testing requirement for domestic air travel, people familiar with the matter said.

The prospect of requiring tests within the U.S. was floated this month by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It sparked a flurry of reaction from airlines and unions with the industry already suffering significant financial losses and job cuts due to the pandemic.

A testing mandate isn’t under close consideration, though no options are being formally ruled out, the people said. No decision is imminent, they said. One expressed surprise that the issue had erupted this week.

“Reports that there’s an intention to put in place new requirements, such as testing, are not accurate,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday.

A Standard & Poor’s index of major U.S. carriers climbed less than 1% at 12:47 p.m. in New York, led by Delta Air Lines Inc.’s 1.8% advance to $43.49.

CEO Meeting

U.S. airline executives met Friday with Jeff Zients, a Biden aide who serves as Covid-19 response coordinator, according to a person familiar with the matter. The White House declined to comment on the online discussion, which included the chief executive officers of United Airlines Holdings Inc., American Airlines Group Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co.

Testing capacity would be a potential constraint on any new domestic requirement, particularly as Biden pushes to reopen schools with a range of mitigation measures, including testing. The CDC released its schools guidance Friday afternoon.

Buttigieg told Axios this week that testing passengers before domestic flights is in “active conversation with the CDC right now.” Psaki said Thursday that the administration will always consider safety measures but that “no decisions have been made around additional public health measures” for domestic flights.

A negative test requirement likely would reduce domestic travel, which has recovered to only about 65% of 2019 levels, by an additional 15 to 20 percentage points, said Hunter Keay, a Wolfe Research aviation analyst.

“They’re trying to dissuade bookings until the vaccine has a broader rollout,” he said. “At this point it’s not so much about the case count as it is about variants. A spike in the number of variants could have more of an influence about how the CDC thinks about this. That’s the wild card.”

Testing Capacity

Discussion about testing comes as Congress considers another $15 billion in federal payroll aid that has helped avoid widespread airline employee furloughs.

The government thus far has provided about $35 billion in grants and loans to 10 of the largest carriers to cover employee costs, according to figures compiled by Savanthi Syth, a Raymond James Financial Inc. analyst. In a separate program, those airlines have negotiated an additional $19.8 billion in government loans, but have drawn only $1.58 billion.

The current seven-day average number of daily passengers -- about 707,000 -- is roughly half of the daily tests administered in the U.S., according to a Feb. 10 report by consulting firm Compass Lexecon. A U.S. airline commissioned the assessment, which was seen by Bloomberg News. Laboratory delays would also likely increase with a surge in new tests, the report said.

Testing for travelers flying into the U.S. from other countries, adopted by the U.S. Jan. 26, is “manageable” because there are only 691 international departures each day, the Air Line Pilots Association said in a letter to the Department of Transportation. Domestically, there are more than 12,000 daily “illustrating the magnitude of the imposition of a domestic testing requirement.”

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