U.S. coronavirus testing plan aims to open New York-London travel by year end holidays

U.S. officials are aiming to open travel between New York City and London with shortened traveler quarantine periods as soon as the holidays.

The growing availability of Covid-19 tests in the U.S. has prompted officials at the Transportation Department, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies to revive efforts to establish safe travel corridors between the U.S. and international destinations. Establishing those routes would require travelers to be tested for Covid-19 before their flight and again upon arrival, allowing them to avoid lengthy quarantines at their destinations.

The Trump administration and foreign governments must both agree to the plan, according to one U.S. official familiar with the efforts. A Homeland Security official said the agency’s work to “safely encourage trans-Atlantic travel while mitigating public-health risks” was in its early stages.

Federal officials have recently focused their talks with their U.K. counterparts, and discussions have also involved German officials, people familiar with the matter said. Limited availability of testing in the U.S. earlier this year and long wait times for test results stalled previous efforts to open international travel.

Currently, American citizens traveling to the U.K. must quarantine for 14 days and for the most part cannot travel to the European Union. The U.S. bars entry to travelers from the U.K. and Europe unless they are U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

After coming to a halt in the early weeks of the pandemic, air travel has remained slow due to travelers’ fears of contracting the coronavirus and closed borders or mandatory quarantine periods for incoming travelers. International travel has been particularly hard-hit, and the scarcity of fliers has put some global airlines out of business and wiped out billions of dollars in profits.

U.S. government and aviation-industry officials involved in the planning talks cited one big obstacle in negotiations with foreign leaders over easing travel restrictions, even with testing: America’s persistently high Covid-19 infection rates. The U.S. and the U.K. have both experienced recent upticks in infections, and the U.S. had more than 56,000 new cases of Covid-19 on Thursday, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

A Transportation Department spokesman said the agency was ready to support the effort and noted officials’ talks with international and industry counterparts were continuing. Easing quarantine requirements has been debated in the U.K., and Transport Minister Grant Shapps said this week that a task force there would study the potential role of airport testing.

Many airline executives say it will take a proven and widely available vaccine to make fliers comfortable and return flying to 2019 levels. Airlines currently mandate that passengers wear masks and have ramped up cabin cleaning.

Eventually, “proof of a vaccination will replace proof of a negative test result” as a travel-must, said Aaron McMillan, United Airlines’s
 managing director of operations policy and support.

Such restrictions, along with fears of infection on longer flights, have left international travel even more depressed than domestic flying, according to the International Air Transport Association, a trade group. Global international air traffic was down 88% in August from the previous year, according to IATA.

An expanded version of this story appears on WSJ.com

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