In new US-Europe air corridors, experts see strategy for quarantine-free travel
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By Shannon McMahon
In mid-December, Delta began offering a trial-run of America's first quarantine-free flights to Europe for qualified travellers.
Heading from the airline's Atlanta air hub to Rome and Amsterdam, the flights make it possible for essential visitors to test out of quarantining on their arrival if they acquire negative results before departure, at the airport upon departure and upon arrival in their destination.
"Customers on Covid-Tested flights will be required to provide negative Covid-19 test results before check-in and boarding, allowing you to travel abroad with confidence and avoid the need to quarantine when you arrive," Delta says of the program on its website.
But despite flashy headlines about quarantine-free access to the hubs in exchange for a negative coronavirus test result, the program is seen by many to have a more specific purpose than appealing to those dreaming of visiting Europe again. Experts in the travel industry hope the covid-tested flights will serve as a model for broader loosening of entry restrictions that are based on testing rather than inoculations, which have been slow to roll out in many places.
Delta itself has said the now-small testing program could serve a bigger purpose. "Carefully designed covid-19 testing protocols are the best path for resuming international travel safely and without quarantine until vaccinations are widely in place," Delta executive Steve Sear said in a news release about the covid-tested flights, which it has dubbed "covid-free."
The European Union is not allowing non-essential travel from the United States because of its status as the most coronavirus-infected country in the world. Exemptions to the rule keeping Americans from visiting allow only returning EU citizens and residents, their close family members and travellers "with an essential function or need" to fly to Europe.
Eduardo Santander, executive director of the European Travel Commission, says the flights have transported very few people between the United States and Europe since they began, but that he sees the potential for them to become a model for a vaccine-era return of transport between the two continents.
"These are corridors for people who have to see each other, the most common people being business people, people studying, families reunifying, those who need to be together again or get back to business," Santander said. "It's very few people and family members mainly, but with that we believe the leisure travel will later come."
Delta plans to run the trial routes until February, and other airlines, such as Air France, are offering similar pretested routes that allow essential entrants to skip quarantine. Lufthansa, British Airways and Alitalia have also offered covid-tested flights that allow essential travelers to bypass a 14-day quarantine.
Santander says allowing testing instead of quarantining is a necessary change to get tourism businesses back on their feet, and he stresses that universal testing programs can restart travel before widespread vaccinations occur.
"The airlines had to start (testing) now or it will be hard to recover," Santander says. "There's a dichotomy between the travel and tourism sector and the health authorities, but I think there is a middle way to not make this more painful for people and create more business if we come up with protocols that are valid for everybody."
Santander is not alone in his call for testing over quarantines, even for routes allowing a small number or travellers. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has frequently urged governments to unify in a testing strategy rather than rely on travel-restricting quarantines. This week, the biggest airlines in the United States wrote a letter to the White House calling for a testing program to replace quarantines and travel bans to the United States.
Clayton Reid, chief executive of travel marketing firm MMGY Global, says he hopes testing will take off and allow a return to travel before vaccinations are widespread, mainly because his company has collected data that suggests not all leisure travellers want to be vaccinated.
Despite the European Travel Council's hope that the pretested flights mark the beginning of return to travel between Europe and the United States, the process is still logistically murky at times.
Nicole Caba, 30, an American who has lived in Lyon, France, since 2019, says a recent flight she took between New York City and Paris was disjointed and stressful despite the quarantine-free testing program she utilized and her plane being virtually empty. Caba founded a software company that aims to help businesses achieve stress-free relocation abroad.
"At the airport in New York, they said to me 'You're an American citizen? There's no way you are going to enter France,'" Caba said.
It was not until she offered an official French proof-of-residency card that the airline allowed her to check in. Caba also says no one on the French side of her journey checked the negative PCR coronavirus test she had acquired. There were only six other passengers on the flight.
"My business is dedicated to helping people who are relocating, so I'm now telling people doing this that you can only protect yourself," Caba said. "People could be trying to get around testing, and that's making things unsafe for us to continue things in any new normal."
The European Union last updated its list of countries permitted to enter the 26-nation Schengen area and Schengen-associated countries (Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Lichtenstein) in August to include visitors from several countries, including Canada, Japan, Uruguay, South Korea and parts of China - but not the United States.
The Monday letter US airlines sent to the Trump administration in support of bolstering coronavirus testing over travel bans called for similar testing programs to replace the current bans on non-essential travel from Brazil, the United Kingdom, and Europe.
"We believe a well-planned program focused on increasing testing of travellers to the United States will further these objectives in a much more effective way than the blanket travel restrictions currently in place," the letter read.
"We are committed to partnership with the US government ... including on an international testing program, and any other ways we can work together to safely and responsibly restore domestic and international air travel."