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US approves US$14bn bailout to airlines, concedes on domestic pre-flight testing

written by Hannah Dowling | February 15, 2021
File image of an AA tail (Source: American Airlines).

A US House committee has approved a proposal to give airlines another US$14 billion in government aid, while the government has also folded to industry pressure to ditch its plans to introduce a mandatory pre-flight testing policy for domestic travellers.

The House of Representatives Financial Services Committee voted 29-24 in favour of supplying an additional US$14 billion in payroll support to US airlines through to September 2021, as well as US$1 billion for contractors.

The funds will form part of a US$1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package being offered by the Biden administration, and is the third round of government support welcomed by the embattled aviation industry.

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The package will see around 30,000 jobs saved across the industry.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that she expects lawmakers to complete legislation based on the bill by the end of February.

Meanwhile, the White House has conceded to pressure from the airline industry and confirmed it is no longer planning to require a negative COVID-19 test prior to domestic flights.

Shortly after, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also confirmed that “at this time, CDC is not recommending required point of departure testing for domestic travel”.

However, the CDC spokesperson noted that the agency “will continue to review public health options for containing and mitigating spread of COVID-19 in the travel space”.

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Last month, the agency said it was “actively looking” into mimicking current overseas travel risk management measures with domestic pre-flight COVID-19 testing, in order to get the country’s spread of the virus under control.

Within days, major US airlines began lobbying against the policy, and warned that extending pre-flight testing policy to domestic travellers could impact already subdued demand for air travel throughout the country, and raised concerns at the current capacity for testing.

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said, “We certainly want to make sure it is something that would restrict demand.” He also noted that demand for domestic travel in the US still remains a fraction of pre-COVID levels.

“No one has talked to us officially about doing that – and if they do we will do our best to make sure we stress how safe it is to fly,” Parker added.

Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said that the focus should be on the continued rollout of the vaccine and asked lawmakers, “Why pick on air travel?”

Kelly also stressed his opinion that the US doesn’t have “adequate testing capacity for the country in the first place”.

“It’s just unrealistic to expect that we can efficiently and effectively do testing on a larger scale,” he said.

With a similar sentiment in mind, JetBlue president Joanna Geraghty said that she was concerned that the requirement could take away access to facilities for people who otherwise need to get a COVID-19 test for legitimate health reasons.

“Frankly, we’re concerned that it would actually reduce the ability of some people who legitimately need to get tested for health reasons,” she said.

Despite backing off from domestic pre-flight testing, public health officials have continued their stance against any non-essential travel.

Dr Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden and the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, stated that under current circumstances, “it is not a good idea to travel, period”.

“If you absolutely have to travel and it’s essential, then obviously, one would have to do that. But we don’t want people to think because they got vaccinated that other public health recommendations just don’t apply,” Dr Fauci said.

The US has seen over 27 million cases of COVID-19 since March 2020, and over 485,000 deaths.

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