The CDC Should Not Require COVID-19 Testing as a Condition for Domestic Air Travel

Stephen Ezell February 12, 2021
February 12, 2021

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The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is considering requiring mandatory COVID-19 testing as a pre-condition of domestic U.S. air travel. While public policy has played an important role in helping to make air travel safer during the pandemic—notably the Biden administration’s mask mandate for airline passengers—requiring passengers to return negative COVID-19 tests as a condition to travel unfairly signals out the airline industry and would add exceedingly little benefit compared to the costs it would impose.

First, the CDC appears to be unfairly singling out the airline industry, considering that the agency is considering such an order only for airline travel, but not for passenger rail or bus travel, for example. Moreover, such an action would fail to recognize that the aviation industry has undertaken tremendous steps to limit passengers’ likelihood of contracting COVID-19 in-flight. In fact, according to a report released by researchers at the T. H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University, the use of masks in combination with diligent cleaning protocols and advanced ventilation and filtration systems on aircraft offers “significant protection against COVID-19 during air travel.” The report concluded that such a multi-layered system of protections “reduces the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission onboard aircraft below that of other routine activities during the pandemic, such as grocery shopping or eating out.”

Aircraft manufacturers and airlines alike have worked diligently to eliminate COVID-19 transmission as thoroughly as possible. Airplane air recycles every 2 to 3 minutes—compared to every 12 to 30 minutes in an office environment—scrubbed by high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters which are over 99.9 percent effective at capturing bacteria and viruses. Further, engineers have designed the air circulation system to flow downward (to the HEPA filters) and thus away from other passengers. A combination of chemical disinfects, electrostatic sprayers, UV technology, and antimicrobial coatings (and in the future thermal and ionization technologies) help to decontaminate surfaces (e.g., fomites) as vectors for the disease’s spread. Through this combination of measures, the airplane cabin environment creates the equivalent of over 2 meters (over 7 feet) of physical distance between each passenger on a full flight. Measures like these explain why an October 2020 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) likewise concludes that “the risk of contracting coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) during air travel is lower than from an office building, classroom, supermarket, or commuter train.” Those findings also concord with a Department of Defense-led study released in October 2020 finding a low risk for passengers traveling aboard large commercial aircraft to contract an airborne virus such as COVID-19.

Beyond this, in an environment of limited resources, policymakers should be first focused on getting vaccines into patients’ arms, not introducing a massive new nation-wide COVID-19 testing program. For instance, one airline estimated that (even given current depressed air traffic levels), it would need 550,000 daily tests to be compliant with such a mandate. The state of Florida alone would need to increase its daily testing activity 2.6-fold to meet such a requirement. Moreover, such an effort would entrail tremendous expense. One study found that “most COVID-19 diagnostic tests cost between $100 and $200” with “the average reported cost of a PCR test is $137 and the average cost of a rapid antigen test is $189.” With over 1 million flyers taking to skies on Thursday, February 11, 2021, such a requirement would thus cost somewhere between $150 to $180 million every single day. That would translate to an expense potentially exceeding $65 billion over the course of 2021. Clearly there are far better and more-efficacious expenditures of public funds during the pandemic.

Moreover, such a requirement would almost surely dissuade some travelers from flying, further hurting the already fragile U.S. airline (and hospitality) industry.

The CDC and federal government are to be commended for exploring a variety of measures to keep Americans safe during this pandemic, but a mandatory COVID-19 testing requirement is not the way to proceed.