Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg confirmed that the administration is engaged in an "active conversation" with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in regards to require negative test results for domestic air travel.
"What I can tell you is, it's going to be guided by data, by science, by medicine and by the input of the people who are actually going to have to carry this out," said Buttigieg.
"What we know is that it's the appropriate measure for international travel, people traveling into the U.S. given some of those considerations," said Buttigieg on Monday, Feb. 8, in an interview on Axios on HBO. "You know, I'd say the domestic picture is very different, but you know the CDC is always evaluating what can best be done to keep Americans safe."
"But here's the thing," he added, "the safer we can make air travel, in terms of perception as well as reality, the more people are going to be ready to get back in the air."
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky defended the possible new rule on the same day during a virtual briefing with reporters. She argued that the country would be able to detect more cases if more screening is done.
"And certainly, there's more gathering that happens in airports. And so, to the extent that we have available tests to be able to do testing," she said. "First and foremost, I would really encourage people to not travel. But if we are traveling, this would be yet another mitigation measure to try and decrease the spread."
The United States currently requires negative COVID-19 tests from all airline passengers who want to enter the country from a foreign nation. This includes citizens and legal permanent residents who're flying back from abroad.
Airlines and other industry groups have strongly criticized the proposal to require negative tests for domestic air travel.
During a hearing with the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Sara Nelson, union leader and international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said that this mandate could bankrupt the entire airline industry. Many airlines are already trying to scrape by during a global pandemic that has damaged the industry's profits due to the significantly reduced air travel.
The Transportation Security Administration reported that on Monday, they only screened 864,000 passengers compared to the 2.1 million passengers screened on the same day last year. (Related: United Airlines CEO wants to force his employees to get the coronavirus vaccine.)
Nelson also questioned why the federal government was seemingly singling out the airline industry. She noted that oher sectors of the economy could just as easily cause a coronavirus outbreak in the country.
"Isolating the airline industry and not doing the same thing for mass transit or doing this at grocery stores or restaurants doesn't make any sense," she said.
Two senior Beoing executives have agreed. They have warned the White House that a testing mandate could pose significant economic harm.
"Imposing such a burden on the already financially beleaguered airline industry has the potential for severe unintended consequences that will ripple across the economy," said Boeing Chief Aerospace Safety Officer Michael Delaney and Commercial Airplanes Chief Executive Stan Deal in an open letter.
Echoing Nelson's concerns, Delaney and Deal's letter questioned why the CDC was focusing on the airline industry. They also said that, if the Biden administration really wants to mandate testing, then the White House should cover all of the costs.
Ed Bastian, Chief Executive Officer of Delta Air Lines, had harsher words for the Biden administration's proposal.
"I think it'd be a horrible idea for a lot of reasons," he said on Tuesday during an interview with CNN.
Bastian argued that there was no evidence that testing will make domestic flights safer. Instead, what it will do is set back the travel industry's recovery by at least another year. When the CDC announced that negative tests were mandatory for international flights to the U.S., Bastian said airlines saw cancellations spike.
In addition, Bastian argued that requiring tests for domestic travelers would divert around 10 percent of the country's testing resources. This is based on data showing that airlines carry around one million passengers a day on average.
Taking tests away from those who truly need it would be a very terrible decision, he said, and given the considerable delays there are in processing results, it would be a "logistical nightmare."
Bastian's comments came after a coalition of influential travel industry personalities, major pilot unions and travel industry associations released a statement urging the Biden administration to not institute mandatory testing.
The group argued that studies showed the risk of COVID-19 transmission during air travel is significantly low. The group also argued that it would be "discriminatory and unwarranted," to mandate testing only for the airline industry. This hinted at the coalition's willingness to sue the federal government if it proceeds with this policy.
"A testing mandate for domestic air travel would require extraordinary resources, set unachievable standards for protecting public health and do little to further curb COVID-19 transmission," said the coalition.
The group is arguing that the current safety measures airlines have implemented are already sufficient. In fact, they argue that their measures were only made stronger thanks to previous federal policies, including mandating face masks on planes. The coalition proceeds to argue that the government should focus on the vaccine rollout "as opposed to testing a very safe mode of travel."
Learn more about how the Biden administration is attempting to respond to the coronavirus pandemic by reading the latest articles at Pandemic.news.