How travel can jump-start our economy
The COVID-19 pandemic is crushing our economy and in particular, the travel industry. US airline passenger traffic plunged 95% in April and Forbes estimates that airlines will need upwards of $1T in bailouts with estimated global revenue losses in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Overall, the travel industry represents roughly 10% of global GDP and employs over seven million people in the U.S. alone which means that we will not see an economic rebound until we make it safe for people to fly again. And if we figure out a way to make flying safe, we can make it safe for people to go to baseball games, football games, concerts, shows, and restaurants. In other words, we get back to normal.
Lessons learned from 9/11 and smart strategies to get the public flying again
Think back to your travel experience in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The TSA was hand-checking nearly all carry-on luggage, non-ticketed passengers were no longer allowed past security, and all passengers over the age of 18 were required to show a government issued ID. These changes were at times confusing, frustrating, and certainly introduced delays but they made passengers feel safe when flying.
The COVID-19 pandemic is similar in that if we can make the skies safe again, travelers will return. But without a vaccine how will people feel safe getting onto a crowded airplane? While mandating masks is an important step we believe that they most will return only when they believe that their fellow passengers are not infected with COVID-19. And the only way to ensure this is to test each and every passenger. This may sound daunting but no more daunting than hand-checking most carry-on luggage.
Envision this: Before entering the terminal at your local airport the TSA -- in partnership with the CDC and local medical teams -- will set up testing stations where passengers, airport employees, and flight crews will queue up to be tested. Those who have a confirmed valid negative test from an accredited lab within the past 72 hours will be able to pass while the rest will be swabbed or provide saliva and then asked to wait while they process the test locally. The current shortest test times are delivered in five minutes by the Abbott ID NOW test platform. We can expect that these test times will drop and testing will be simplified over time based on the number of pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies racing to deliver rapid COVID-19 tests (Antigen tests).
One very important point is that no one will want to risk getting turned back at the airport and missing their business trip or vacation. Many passengers will have been tested prior to their trip which means the burden of testing at the airport decreases. And for those who get an antibody test and have immunity to COVID-19, the CDC could (should) have an app that displays an unhackable QR code that can be scanned and allows those passengers to skip the line similar to TSA PreCheck.
Precedents for comprehensive passenger testing
Already we are seeing international destinations opening up to American tourists. There are twenty four countries that now welcome U.S. citizens, with twenty requiring at least one negative PCR test, typically 72 hours prior to arrival for all passengers. And on July 21 the CEO’s of five major airlines including United, American, British Airways, Lufthansa, and Iberia penned a letter to Vice President Spence requesting for the government and industry to “work together to safely passenger traffic between the U.S. and Europe.” Setting the pace all the way back in April, Emirates Airlines began rapid COVID-19 testing for all outbound passengers Dubai and now requires negative PCR tests within 96 hours for both inbound and outbound passengers.
The point is that international travel will soon require comprehensive testing, why can’t we do the same for domestic travel. The issue lies in the need for expanded rapid testing. Stay tuned for my next blog that addresses this.
The path forward
Let us find a way to give Americans the confidence to get back on airplanes for business and leisure travel. Safe Skies starting with international travel and large airports can accomplish this. Proposed next steps are:
- Create a public-private partnership between the TSA, CDC, local governments, and airlines to formulate a “Safe Skies” plan with the goal being to test all passengers, flight crews, and airport employees at major airports
- Create a groundswell of interest in this proposal by forwarding this on to those in influential roles in the industry.
- Extend the model to include cruises (Safe Seas), hotels and resorts (Safe Stays), trains (Safe Rails) as well as large local venues (Safe Stadiums, Safe Ballparks, Safe Theaters, etc.)
The travel industry can lead our economy and our country back from the COVID-19 crisis, please join me and become an advocate for the Safe Skies Initiative.
Sign the petition today: Safe Skies Intiative