New variant raises questions about air travel mandates

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  • Joe Biden
    Joe Biden
    46th and current president of the United States

The emergence of the omicron variant has caused the White House to revisit questions over whether to impose vaccine mandates for domestic air travel, especially as travel picks up for the holiday season.

The White House said nothing is off the table as the country braces for the new variant to spread to the U.S. A move to mandate vaccines for domestic air travel or require testing would be controversial and likely hotly contested, but the Biden administration isn't shutting down the idea.

"He wasn't taking any options off the table, but he's going to rely on the advice of his health and medical experts," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday, referring to President Biden, when asked why there aren't testing or vaccination requirements for domestic air travel.

The president, earlier on Monday, was asked if consideration has been given to domestic flights requiring tests or vaccines in light of the upcoming Christmas travel period.

"Well, at this point, that's not been recommended. I would wait for my - the scientific community - to give me a recommendation on that," Biden said.

The administration and public health experts stress that getting vaccinated is the best step Americans can take to protect themselves against the new variant, which has yet to be detected in the U.S. but is seen as an inevitability.

The threat of the new variant comes as Americans are preparing to travel for Christmas, which could yield the most pandemic travel since the Thanksgiving rush. The Transportation Security Agency (TSA) screened nearly 2.5 million people on Sunday, which is the highest volume since Feb. 15, 2020.

The federal mask mandate for all transportation networks, which has been in place since February, expires on Jan. 18, and a TSA spokesperson told The Hill there is no updated guidance on extending it.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske relies on the advice and guidance of health and medical experts and considers the operational feasibility in all recommendations that seek to contain the spread of COVID-19, the spokesperson said.

The business community's major issue with a vaccine and testing requirement for domestic air travel is the operational feasibility of it.

"We support the vaccination and testing requirement to reopen the international inbound travel segment; however, a similar mandate for domestic flyers would create a logistical dilemma and have an unfair, negative impact on families with young children not yet eligible for the vaccine," said Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association.

All nonessential foreign visitors coming into the U.S. by land and air have to be fully vaccinated, a policy that began on Nov. 8, and all essential foreign travelers into the U.S. must be fully vaccinated by Jan. 22.

Airlines for America, which represents the major U.S. airlines, has the same concerns. "We have been informed by the Administration that there is no imminent policy proposal regarding a domestic travel requirement and echo concerns about the implementation and enforcement of such a policy," the group said in a statement.

American travelers - those who have taken at least one trip of 50 miles or more from home in the past two years - have a higher vaccination rate, at 74 percent, than the general U.S. population, according to data released on Monday from the market research firm Destination Analysts.

Aside from the private sector pushback, Republicans would likely criticize a mandate for travel, based on the party's criticism of the president's mandate that businesses with 100 or more employees require vaccines or weekly testing.

GOP governors and attorneys general filed lawsuits or joined existing ones almost immediately after that rule was published, and a federal court in November put on hold on the mandate, which the Biden administration has asked to be reinstated.

On the other side of the aisle, some Democrats in Congress have stepped up their calls for a vaccine-or-test mandate for travelers.

Thirty-six members in November signed a letter to Biden, which was led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), urging the Biden administration to require proof of vaccination or a recent negative test for airline passengers

"No matter what happens with the Omicron variant, other Covid variants including Delta pose significant danger to the public right now," Beyer told The Hill.

"I continue to urge the Administration to require travelers to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test before boarding domestic flights, which would help protect the public and make travel safer," he added.

Beyer in September introduced legislation for a vaccine-or-test mandate for all domestic airline and train travelers, and said he is "working with my colleagues to demonstrate broader support in Congress for requiring vaccinations for domestic travelers."

Biden's chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, voiced his support for a mandate in September. At the time, he said he would support the concept that if you want to get on a plane and travel with other people, you should be vaccinated.

White House chief of staff Ron Klain also said at the time that a vaccine mandate for domestic air travel was being considered.

When asked if there are any new measures the White House is going to consider to get more people vaccinated amid fears over the omicron variant, Psaki said there was nothing new to announce on Tuesday.

"We will continue to look for creative ways to encourage more people to protect themselves, protect their neighbors, protect their loved ones. Those often are in partnership, as you noted, with private sector companies," she said.

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