How to kill the travel industry in two easy steps

Mandatory COVID tests for air travelers and a new travel ban ought to do it!

The Biden administration has floated two ideas to curb the deadly new COVID-19 strains. Both of them would almost certainly protect Americans, but they could also kill what's left of the travel industry.

These controversial ideas involve even more testing and restrictions on travel. And they also raise an obvious question: How safe is too safe?

More practically, they promise to throw America's spring break travel plans, such as they are, into complete disarray. And even if they aren't enacted, travelers face some difficult choices in the coming weeks.

🎧 Listen to the podcast: Proposed travel restrictions could a kill fragile recovery

How much testing is too much?

The first idea: Testing all domestic air travelers for COVID. 

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) already requires passengers coming to the United States, including U.S. citizens, to have a negative COVID-19 test result or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 before they board a flight to the United States. 

Now the government wants to go further, requiring a negative test result for domestic passengers as well.

The airline industry doesn't like that idea, of course. Mandatory tests unfairly discriminate against airlines, would price many air travelers out of flying and destroy the fragile recovery that's underway, they claim. I agree.

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Southwest Airlines commissioned a study to determine the effects of mandatory testing. 

By the end of the year, the airline industry expects to be back to 75 percent of its pre-pandemic traffic. With mandatory international testing, that number drops to 71 percent. 

With domestic testing, it falls to 58 percent. 

"We urge you to consider the impacts of requiring a negative COVID-19 test for domestic air travel would have on our industry, other businesses that rely on commercial air travel, and millions of individuals with real travel needs," Southwest's CEO, Gary Kelly, wrote in a letter to President Biden. 

Here’s the full text of the letter (subscribers only).

And the administration listened. Sort of. Late last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation said it would not impose a domestic testing requirement — "at this time." 

New travel restrictions?

Last week, the administration also reportedly considered broader travel restrictions to mitigate the spread of the new COVID-19 variants. Those would include limiting interstate travel, particularly to hard-hit states such as California and Florida. 

That's right, everyone's favorite spring break destinations would shut down. 

If the limits go into effect, then the consequences could be even more dramatic. (The government has clarified that no travel ban is "imminent.")

We're talking chaos at the airport as airlines cancel thousands of flights. Hours-long waiting times at the state line, where authorities turn away visitors at checkpoints. Not to mention the tens of thousands of distraught spring break travelers demanding refunds from their hotels and vacation rentals simultaneously.

It's no exaggeration: This could push a lot of distressed travel companies into insolvency.

Unsurprisingly, states like Florida are dead set against this idea. Gov. Ron DeSantis called the proposal "completely absurd," noting that the current administration allows illegal aliens "to pour across our southern border."

He added, "We won’t allow Floridians to be unfairly targeted for political purposes."

But DeSantis overlooks the real potential damage, which is to his state's wounded travel industry. If we start to see roadblocks on I-95 — if there's even talk of it — then it could soften demand for travel in March and April. That's high season for Florida tourism. 

The effects could be ruinous.

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What about travelers?

Travelers are caught in the middle of this debate between safety and economic survival. No one wants to bring coronavirus home from vacation. But is requiring a $100 COVID test or banning travel to the Sunshine State too extreme?

Maybe. I've been covering travel security for decades. When I interview safety experts, I ask them the question everyone wants to know: How can you guarantee your safety when you travel? To which they have a simple answer. The only way to be 100 percent safe is to stay home.

Should the government require us to do that? And how, exactly, would that work? Would those restrictions apply only to unvaccinated travelers or people who have had COVID and recovered from it? How do we even prove we've been vaccinated when there's no secure way of verifying that?

Until those questions are answered, what should a responsible traveler do? The CDC is still advising people to avoid travel. But after being locked down for more than a year, Americans are less willing to do so than perhaps ever. 

This is a one-way ticket to a confrontation no one wants, and that we can ill afford.

It's starting to get very confusing, even to me. I've been holed up in Arizona for the last six months and my lease is about to run out. I've had almost daily conversations with my kids about our next destination. We don't have a permanent home and have been on the move for the last five years. We were hoping to visit friends in Florida in March.

In January, we agreed on several strict criteria for resuming our travels, which included a drop in new COVID cases and deaths nationwide. Also, I had to get both shots. Last week, we unexpectedly met all of those requirements, giving us the green light. 

But I'm still nervous. Really nervous. I think the situation could quickly turn dangerous. And I'm worried we'll find a roadblock on I-10, which would leave us with nowhere to go. 

How about you? When are you going to give yourself the green light to travel again? What criteria would have to be met before you're comfortable leaving your home? The comments are open.

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