The United States travel industry has welcome new Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, which it said will substantially relax restrictions on travel for people who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The agency said fully vaccinated travellers with an FDA-authorised vaccine can travel safely within the United States and do not need to get tested before or after travel unless their destination requires it, and they do not need to self-quarantine.

While the CDC notes that international travel poses additional risks, it said that fully vaccinated travellers should follow recommendations for traveling safely and get tested 3-5 days after travel, but do not need to self-quarantine after arriving in the United States.

US Travel Association President and CEO, Roger Dow said: “This is a major step in the right direction that is supported by the science and will take the brakes off the industry that has been hardest hit by the fallout of COVID by far.”

“Acknowledging that vaccinations eliminate the need for testing and quarantines removes a key barrier to domestic travel. Rescinding the recommendation that international visitors must quarantine also is an important incremental step.”

Domestic travel recommendations for vaccinated people

According to the CDC’s updated guidance, people who are fully vaccinated with an FDA-authorised vaccine can travel safely within the United States. 

People are considered fully vaccinated:

  • Two weeks after their second dose in a two-dose series, such as the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines; or
  • Two weeks after a single-dose vaccine, such as Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine.

Individuals who have not completed the two-week period are not fully vaccinated, so the CDC recommends continuing to take all precautions until they are fully vaccinated. The CDC also cautions that immuno-compromised individuals may need to limit travel, even if vaccinated.

ASTA welcomes CDC’s guidance

The American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) welcomed the news, but said that more still needs to be done.

In a statement, ASTA said: “We welcome the CDC’s new guidance that fully vaccinated Americans can resume domestic travel without additional testing or quarantines, something we have called for time and again. While this announcement is welcome, more needs to be done. Since the CDC has determined that fully vaccinated travellers are less likely to get and spread COVID-19, logic dictates that additional rules also be relaxed, including restrictions on cruise travel and the rule requiring Americans returning from overseas to test negative for COVID-19 before boarding their return flight. At a minimum, we call on the CDC to take these common-sense steps and to publish a framework for travel’s reopening so advisors and their clients can plan with certainty and to continue work on systems to establish vaccination, immunity or a negative test result so that international travel can restart in earnest.”

US domestic air travel set to fully recover by early next year

A new report from consulting firm Oliver Wyman indicates that air travel’s post-coronavirus recovery is moving more quickly than expected, as economic measures and the US nationwide vaccine roll-out continue gaining traction.

Oliver Wyman’s Airline Economic Analysis 2020-2021 said domestic travel will normalise by 2022, with business and international travel to return to pre-COVID levels one year later.

Tom Stalnaker, Oliver Wyman’s Global Aviation Practice Leader, said early in the pandemic, aviation experts had feared the downturn would last five years or more.

Stalnaker said: “A year ago, we would have thought that a full domestic recovery in this timeframe for the US was almost impossible, but the combination of pent-up demand, economic stimulus and access to vaccines is making a difference.

“We are still far from a full recovery for the overall industry, but we expect some of the airlines to start turning cash-flow positive in a matter of months, particularly in the US.”

In recent weeks, several major passenger airlines said March was shaping up to be their most-profitable month since the global health crisis brought air travel to a near-standstill one year ago. Traffic has picked up to about 50% of pre-pandemic levels, supported by spring break travel, Stalnaker said.

Oliver Wyman predicted air travel in the Northeast USA will ramp up first, and that the rest of the country will follow quickly.

“The Northeast will be one of the regions that emerges earliest, which is fitting as it was the region to be hit hardest in the early days of the pandemic,” said Stalnaker. “If the progression toward herd immunity unfolds as expected, then the US could see a relatively rapid pick-up in demand for domestic travel sometime this summer.”

Leisure travellers looking for good flight deals and tired of sheltering-at-home recommendations, returned in greater numbers in late 2020, said Wyman, while business and international travellers continued to stay away. 

Major US airlines, which rely heavily on higher-yielding business travel, have adjusted their networks and schedules to capitalise on demand from holidaymakers.

Stalnaker said: “The industry has become dependent on leisure travellers who, despite the pandemic, began to take trips again in the second half of 2020. With these lower-yielding travellers making up a higher portion of a decimated demand, airlines were doomed to see a drop in revenue and substantial losses.”

US tourist numbers hit new high

Statistics from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which is responsible for security checkpoints at almost 450 airports across the US, show that more and more people are venturing out. 

The agency screened more than one million passengers on all but four days during the month of March 2021, data showed.

Daily passenger counts continue to rise. On April 2, 2021, the TSA screened nearly 1.6 million passengers, the highest daily number since 12 March 2020. 

“That’s about 64% of customers TSA screened in 2019 on the same day,” a TSA spokesperson said.

Hopper searches weighted towards domestic travel

Figures released by US travel app Hopper, indicate that internet searches for domestic flights, since early April 2021, were higher than they were at the same time in 2019.

Adit Damodaran, an Economist at Hopper, said searches for international flights still lag behind pre-pandemic levels. Currently only about a third of searches on Hopper for flights this summer are to international locations, with the remaining two-thirds being dedicated to trips within the US, adding, “This is typically much closer to a 50/50 split in normal years.”

US cruises show no sign of setting sail soon

Despite the country’s health authority relaxing rules on travel, a restart of cruising in US waters appears no closer.

The CDC continues to recommend that “all people avoid travel on cruise ships, including river cruises, worldwide” due to the high risk of getting COVID-19 on board. The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) has called for a gradual resumption of sailings from US ports in July.

CLIA reiterated its call on the Biden administration to consider the “ample evidence” that supports lifting Conditional Sailing Order (CSO), which was first introduced last October, covering technical instructions for cruise ship operators and local health authorities, this month to allow for the planning of a controlled return to service this summer.

According to a spokesperson for CLIA, “If anything, the CDC announcement is a clarion call for closer co-operation and coordination among stakeholders to achieve the president’s goal of reaching a ‘new normal’ by July 4. Working together, we can avoid the negative consequences that come when cruising, and the workers who support it, are not afforded the same opportunities as other workers in industries with far fewer practices in place to provide for public health and well-being. Nearly 400,000 passengers have already sailed from Europe and parts of Asia since last summer, following stringent, science-based protocols that resulted in a far lower incident rate than on land. The irony is that today an American can fly to any number of destinations to take a cruise, but cannot board a ship in the US – this deprives US workers from participating in the economic recovery and does not recognise the public health advances that have been made over many months, including the ability to effectively mitigate risk on cruise ships.”

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