Covid Testing Mandate Idea for Domestic Flights Draws Opposition

  • ‘Devastating to the airline industry,’ union official says
  • Federal payroll aid set to expire at the end of March

Lawmakers in both parties and representatives from the aviation industry say mandated Covid-19 testing for domestic flights would lead to even greater furloughs and losses, especially if federal aid to keep airline employees on the payroll expires next month.

“This would be devastating to the airline industry, we cannot do cosmetic things that won’t actually contain, kill the virus and make sure that we are eradicating it,” Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, said at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing Thursday.

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Association of Flight Attendants International President Sara Nelson joined airline executives, fellow union heads and political leaders outside the U.S. Capitol Sept. 22, 2020 to urge Congress to extend the Payroll Support Program.

The bipartisan opposition comes a week after Marty Cetron, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, said at a briefing that the agency was “actively looking” into a Covid-19 testing requirement for domestic flights.

A Covid-19 testing requirement recently went into effect for all travelers boarding international flights to the U.S.

Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said he is concerned that the CDC is considering a mandate on domestic flights. That would mean an immediate increase of at least 50% in daily testing capacity, he said.

“I don’t know where that comes from, and furthermore, I’m not certain of its effectiveness, given that even the most effective test is not particularly accurate,” DeFazio said. “And if it’s necessary in aviation, well, then I guess we’d have to worry about interstate trucking, interstate buses, Amtrak, and people getting their automobiles across state lines.”

While testing can be useful, wearing masks, having improved ventilation and filtration, and distancing has been shown to be “very effective,” David Michaels, a health professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, told the hearing. Given the cost and imposition of mandated testing, Michaels said he would oppose it.

Push for More Aid

Most members of Congress in the hearing fly frequently and see the “devastating effects that have taken place with a lack of passengers and lack of ability to continue to operate in a very high cost environment,” Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) said.

The flight attendant union’s Nelson said she is pushing for an extension of the Payroll Support Program, set to expire in March, to keep airlines from cutting jobs. Airlines and airports are seeking $15 billion and $17 billion, respectively, in the new coronavirus stimulus package Democrats are drafting.

“The major airlines are still losing $30 million a day,” Nelson said in an interview before the hearing.

United Airlines Holdings Inc. already told 14,000 employees that their jobs will be at risk in April after the second round of payroll support expires. Similarly, American Airlines Group Inc. warned 13,000 workers that they could be laid off.

Without an extension of the PSP, Nelson said at the hearing, there would be job losses and even airline bankruptcies. The uncertainty is beginning now, she said, and there is mental health strain on workers since they don’t know whether Congress will extend the payroll program.

Requiring testing for domestic flights would further cripple airlines, Nelson said.

“The furloughs that we saw in October would be dwarfed by the furloughs that we would see if we had a testing mandate that we can’t effectively run,” Nelson said. “We would see many, many more furloughs and without the extension of PSP, which also requires the airlines not to furlough and continue to support that payroll that they simply can’t support in this kind of environment, where revenue is down 80%, it would be devastating.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at lbyington@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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