US ending airport COVID screening, reports say; more international flights coming?

Sep 10, 2020

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Overseas flights could be returning to more U.S. airports following reports the government is set to ease coronavirus-related restrictions on passengers arriving from abroad.

The U.S. had been requiring passengers coming from certain high-risk countries — including Brazil, China and much of Europe — to undergo “enhanced” screening upon arrival in the U.S. The move required those passengers to fly into one of 15 airports designated by the government, but the White House plans to end that requirement on Monday (14 September), according to a report from Yahoo! News that cited unnamed sources.

Reuters later confirmed the report, though it noted “the move could still be delayed,” according to the unnamed U.S. officials cited by the news agency.

That enhanced screening is supposed to include health monitoring for COVID-19 symptoms and the collection of information that would facilitate contact tracing for possible exposure, though arriving passengers have reported varying levels of checks at the designated airports.

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“The orders to cease prescreening operations came from the White House, with strict orders to keep the information secret until a public announcement is made”, Yahoo! News wrote in its report. “Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the various agencies — and contractors — involved in the airport screening operations are working frantically to prepare for Monday’s shutdown [of screenings]”.

If the news turns out to be confirmed, the move would likely worry health experts afraid of a possible “second wave” and the persistence of COVID infections in countries like the United States, Brazil and India.

Health implications notwithstanding, the enhanced screening restriction has presented a headache for schedule planners at U.S. airlines since many high-profile international long-haul routes were essentially restricted to the designated 15 airports.

American Airlines, for example, has two major hubs — Charlotte and Philadelphia — that are not on the list. Both are important transatlantic gateways for American. So, as the carrier tried to restart some international service, it had to choose to either hold off or instead fly some routes from hubs like Dallas/Fort Worth, poorly positioned for East Coast connections.

More: When will international travel return? A country-by-country guide to coronavirus travel restrictions

American’s long-haul plans for September underscored the challenge, with most of the carrier’s European routes coming from Dallas/Fort Worth. No long haul flights were on the September schedule from either Charlotte or Philadelphia, according to data from Cirium. It’s only European routes from other hubs were to London, where American also has stepped up its reliance on partner British Airways for international connections via that carrier’s hub at Heathrow Airport.

Other U.S. airlines have not been affected as severely, such as United. Six of its seven mainland U.S. hubs were included in the list of 15 airports; only Denver was not.

As for the apparent decision to scrap the enhanced screening requirement, a federal document viewed by Reuters said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “is shifting its strategy and prioritizing other public health measures to reduce the risk of travel-related disease transmission”.

The document added about 675,000 passengers have been screened at the 15 airports, but “fewer than 15 have been identified as having COVID-19”.

The 15 airports designated for enhanced screening protocols are listed below.

  • Atlanta (ATL)
  • Boston (BOS)
  • Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
  • Dallas/Fort Worth
  • Detroit (DTW)
  • Fort Lauderdale (FLL)
  • Honolulu (HNL)
  • Houston George Bush Intercontinental (IAH)
  • Los Angeles (LAX)
  • Miami (MIA)
  • New York JFK
  • Newark (EWR)
  • San Francisco (SFO)
  • Seattle (SEA)
  • Washington Dulles (IAD)

Featured image by  Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images.

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