U.S. Covid-Testing Plan Aims to Open New York-London Travel by Holidays

U.S. officials are aiming to open travel between New York City and London with shortened traveler quarantine periods as soon as the holidays, according to people familiar with the matter.

The growing availability of Covid-19 tests in the U.S. has prompted officials at the Transportation Department, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies to revive efforts to establish safe travel corridors between the U.S. and international destinations, the people said. Establishing those routes would require travelers to be tested for Covid-19 before their flight and again upon arrival, allowing them to avoid lengthy quarantines at their destinations.

The Trump administration and foreign governments must both agree to the plan, according to one U.S. official familiar with the efforts. A Homeland Security official said the agency’s work to “safely encourage trans-Atlantic travel while mitigating public-health risks” was in its early stages.

Federal officials have recently focused their talks with their U.K. counterparts, and discussions have also involved German officials, people familiar with the matter said.

Limited availability of testing in the U.S. earlier this year and long wait times for test results stalled previous efforts to open international travel.

Airlines and airports have ramped up cleaning to reassure travelers.



Photo:

Katie Orlinsky for The Wall Street Journal

Currently, American citizens traveling to the U.K. must quarantine for 14 days and for the most part cannot travel to the European Union. The U.S. bars entry to travelers from the U.K. and Europe unless they are U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

After coming to a halt in the early weeks of the pandemic, air travel has remained slow due to travelers’ fears of contracting the coronavirus and closed borders or mandatory quarantine periods for incoming travelers. International travel has been particularly hard-hit, and the scarcity of fliers has put some global airlines out of business and wiped out billions of dollars in profits.

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U.S. government and aviation-industry officials involved in the planning talks cited one big obstacle in negotiations with foreign leaders over easing travel restrictions, even with testing: America’s persistently high Covid-19 infection rates. The U.S. and the U.K. have both experienced recent upticks in infections, and the U.S. had more than 56,000 new cases of Covid-19 on Thursday, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

The White House’s National Security Council approved the corridor plan to move forward in recent weeks, people familiar with the matter said. A spokesman for the security council declined to comment.

A Transportation Department spokesman said the agency was ready to support the effort and noted officials’ talks with international and industry counterparts were continuing. Easing quarantine requirements has been debated in the U.K., and Transport Minister Grant Shapps said this week that a task force there would study the potential role of airport testing.

Reviving popular vacation and business routes has been a priority for airlines and governments whose economies depend on travel. Some carriers have already worked with governments in states like Hawaii and destinations like Costa Rica and Jamaica on testing plans that shorten travelers’ mandatory quarantine periods.

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Like a lot of virus-related travel measures, these early efforts are a patchwork, with different testing options depending on the airline, from rapid-testing at the airport to at-home test kits. Travelers pay for the tests, most of which cost $100 or more.

Under these guidelines, tests aren’t mandatory for every flier as they would be in the plans federal officials are considering.

“We want to ease into this,” said Julie Rath, vice president of customer experience and reservations at

American Airlines Group Inc.


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Many airline executives say it will take a proven and widely available vaccine to make fliers comfortable and return flying to 2019 levels. Airlines currently mandate that passengers wear masks and have ramped up cabin cleaning.

Eventually, “proof of a vaccination will replace proof of a negative test result” as a travel-must, said Aaron McMillan,

United Airlines’s


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managing director of operations policy and support.

Nations’ and carriers’ attempts to reopen world travel have been uneven. In addition to U.S. and EU traveler bans, some countries, like Argentina, have remained largely shut. Others are open, but subject travelers to an array of rules and restrictions regarding the lengths of quarantines and types of tests travelers need to take.

President Trump announced that the federal government would distribute 150 million rapid coronavirus tests in the coming weeks, to vulnerable populations and states to help open economies and schools. Photo: Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

Such restrictions, along with fears of infection on longer flights, have left international travel even more depressed than domestic flying, according to the International Air Transport Association, a trade group. Global international air traffic was down 88% in August from the previous year, according to IATA.

Airline executives on both sides of the Atlantic have been pushing since July for governments to use testing in lieu of quarantines and other international restrictions. Airports in North America, Europe and Asia have also been working to develop a common testing framework.

For now, testing bottlenecks have eased and the U.S. has more testing capacity than it is using. The seven-day average of new daily tests conducted in the U.S. is about 961,000 or just under 30 million tests a month, while the Department of Health and Human Services said about 90 million tests were available in September.

Rapid tests are expected to be a primary tool to maintain Covid-free corridors, the people briefed on the matter said. Rapid tests typically trade some accuracy for speed, so it wasn’t immediately clear whether other tests—such as polymerase chain reaction tests run in labs—and shorter periods of self-isolation might be required.

Write to Andrew Tangel at [email protected], Alison Sider at [email protected] and Michelle Hackman at [email protected]

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