New international travel COVID-19 rules must be simplified

U.S. lifts travel restrictions
Associated Press/Christophe Ena

The Biden administration announced new protocols for international travel, which went into effect on Nov. 8.  They relax previous travel restrictions, opening up international travel opportunities for a wider footprint of people, something that the airline and travel industry desperately need to remain financially viable.  

These guidelines require every traveler to provide proof of vaccination and a negative test within three days of departure. There are however numerous exemptions for those unvaccinated, which still permit them to travel to the United States. For such people, a negative test within one day of departure is required. The array of exemptions is broad, including medical, humanitarian workers and vaccine availability in the country from where a traveler’s passport was issued. In addition, for those vaccinated, their vaccine must be on the approved list from the World Health Organization or the Food and Drug Administration.  

The takeaway from the new protocols is that travelers to the United States are highly encouraged to be vaccinated, the same message that the Biden administration is communicating to all Americans.  

COVID-19 has significantly impacted international travel, given the plethora of rules, regulations and restrictions that may need to be followed for multiple countries on each trip. As the nation continues its trek to a new normal, with the virus transitioning from pandemic to endemic, travel is critical for the nation’s social and economic wellbeing. However, the multiple scenarios considered in the new regulations are too complicated to be effective — and too difficult to be enforced.   

Sets of procedures based on “if-then-else” flow charts may seem simple to follow when reviewed in the comfort of one’s home. However, when hundreds of people are trying to check-in and board a U.S.-bound flight, the task of verification and enforcement by airlines and airport personnel will create far more chaos than calm. 

As airports have standardized physical security checkpoints, a similar standardized health security checkpoint is needed. 

Relying on people to find and provide a negative test result within a short time frame is fraught with uncertainty and subject to tampering and misrepresentation. The same can be said about documentation for proof of vaccination.   

At-home COVID-19 tests should be provided and administered by health security personnel at airports prior to boarding for all passengers, independent of a person’s vaccination status.  The federal government can provide such test kits to the airlines at no cost, or a COVID-19 surcharge can be added to each international ticket, similar to how airlines add a fuel surcharge when fuel prices surge or with the security fee collected to partially offset the cost of airport security procedures. 

Such standardization would be most effective in fulfilling the objective of reduced risk of infected passengers boarding airplanes when traveling by air to the United States  It also ensures that everyone will have access to a test prior to his or her flight.  

Lastly, it decouples vaccination from testing, which on a flight that will take at most 19 hours, knowing who may be infected is more important than knowing who is vaccinated. 

Airport testing also eliminates concerns about vaccination exemptions. Treating all passengers the same, independent of their vaccination status, simplifies the health screening process at airports and gives everyone on board a stronger sense of health security. 

Such an approach will have some challenges. There are multiple types of tests, with PCR considered the most accurate.  Numerous at-home tests are available that have FDA emergency use authorization. Such tests are also more susceptible to false negatives. This means that if a person was only recently infected, they may test negative yet could still transmit the virus on a flight, particularly a very long one. However, this risk is no greater than what exists with the proposed guidelines. In fact, it is likely lower risk than the proposed guidelines since all passengers will be tested with a standardized at-home test directly prior to their flight. 

Trying to manage multiple vaccination and testing scenarios is certain to create more confusion than clarity. Lessons learned from airport physical security screening suggest that a standardized health security screening procedure applied to all passengers would be the most effective and robust approach to keep airplanes virus-free and passengers safe during long-haul international flights.   

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has researched aviation security systems since 1995. His research provided the technical foundations for TSA PreCheck. 

Tags air travel restrictions airline security COVID travel restrictions COVID-19 international travel Sheldon H. Jacobson TSA

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