Emirates Airlines will be pulling its Boeing 777 jets into DFW International Airports Terminal D on March 2 after a nearly one-year absence, hoping travel demand to Dubai and the Middle East is rebounding.
When it does, passengers will have to navigate a maze of travel restrictions both arriving and leaving the United States that could include showing proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test or requirements to quarantine in place for nearly two weeks after arriving here or wherever their final destination is.
Some 11 months into a pandemic that has crippled the travel world, airlines and passengers are showing some eagerness to get back to flying. But cautious governments eager to stamp out the coronavirus are enacting even tighter rules on travelers in hopes of containing more contagious strains of the virus as vaccine distribution ramps up worldwide.
Thats leaving airlines and passengers to sort through rapidly changing rules enacted not just by national governments, but by individual state governments and sometimes even smaller jurisdictions.
Meanwhile, U.S. health officials have said there are discussions with the Biden Administration about requiring tests to travel within the country, a move that some inside the industry said could cripple airlines and lead to bankruptcies.
Certainly its a new world right now, said Emirates Airlines vice president for the U.S. and Canada region Essa Sulaiman Ahmad. We are doing everything we can to abide by the safety regulations of the countries and cities we fly to.
Fort Worth-based American Airlines cited the growing travel restrictions this week as one of the reasons for sending out nearly 13,000 furlough notices Friday to union workers, including pilots, flight attendants and fleet service employees. Its the airlines second round of furloughs since October.
The vaccine is not being distributed as quickly as any of us believed, and new restrictions on international travel that require customers to have a negative COVID-19 test have dampened demand, said a letter to employees from American Airlines CEO Doug Parker and President Robert Isom.
Its not for lack of trying by airlines. American Airlines, United and Delta have all been pushing apps and websites on customers, partnering with COVID-19 testing facilities and working with governments to find out what passengers need to do before they arrive.
American has been using an app called VeriFly to help passengers know exactly what travel requirements they face when landing in their destination. It also stores documents including negative COVID-19 tests.
United has launched a similar app that connects to a customers itinerary.
Theres no one silver bullet during this pandemic at helping people travel, said Preston Peterson, director of customer experience at American. What this does is give another method to help the customer do what they need to do to travel internationally.
Many parts of the world are still essentially off-limits to U.S. travelers, including large sections of the European Union, Asia and places such as New Zealand. In other places, people have to show a negative coronavirus test and quarantine as long as two weeks. Even in Dubai, the hub for Emirates Airlines, passengers may have to isolate for 10 days after arrival and take another COVID-19 test.
We are in a very reactive environment with respect to COVID restrictions, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said in a call with reporters and investors last week after the Dallas-based carrier reported a $3.1 billion loss for 2020, its first loss in 48 years.
There are new international requirements with testing and attestation protocols, he said. They are evolving domestic requirements and there are various mask-related challenges that our teams are reacting to every day.
While restrictions grow and evolve, airlines have signaled that the next few months will continue to be a struggle. Chicago-based United Airlines sent furlough warnings to 14,000 workers. Transportation Security Administration data shows that airport screenings are still down about 65% from 2019 levels. The major trade group for airlines says planes are still less than half full on average, despite drastically reduced schedules by carriers.
U.S. airline leaders and others in the industry have lashed out against the possibility of testing requirements for domestic travel, saying its both impractical and would devastate airlines and related businesses.
Lets be clear, the furloughs that we saw in October would be dwarfed by the furloughs that we would see if we have a testing mandate that is not effectively run, said Sara Nelson, president of the largest flight attendant union in the country, the Association of Flight Attendants. And in that situation, we wouldnt just be talking about lost jobs, wed also likely be talking about airline bankruptcies.
Many of the recently enacted restrictions are a step back from the efforts that an airline trade group has been pushing for the last six months. The International Air Transport Association wants global governments to reopen borders for travelers that have shown a negative COVID-19 test.
Those efforts have failed as more virulent strains of the COVID-19 vaccine emerged in December and January and infection rates spiked in many parts of the world.
Brett Snyder, a blogger for Crankyflier.com and a travel consultant, said the testing requirements are insanely confusing.
Its hard to keep track of what the rules are, and they change frequently, he said.
That has put the onus on airlines to figure out how to guide customers through the process, he said.
We are almost a year into this and airlines are just now starting to step up and figure out all these things about testing and getting information to passengers, said Snyder, who is based in California. Even a national policy is useless for something like this. There needs to be something global.
Emirates is one of the first airlines to partner with the International Air Transport Association on a global Travel Pass, a program similar to Verifly and Uniteds app that would hopefully gain the confidence of nations with closed borders.
State and federal governments have yet to open borders and make other concessions to people that have had vaccines, even with more than 25 million vaccinations administered in the U.S.
It seems like everyone is still waiting for studies that show if people with the vaccine are still contagious, Snyder said.
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