U.S. Airline Mask Mandate Extended, Covid Test Requirements Tightened For International Arrivals

The Biden administration was considering severe air travel restrictions out of concern for the Omicron variant of the virus, but they couldn’t make the logistics of legality of some of them work. New restrictions were expected to be announced on Thursday, and now we know what they’re actually doing.

  • Requiring a negative test within one day of travel (rather than three) to enter the U.S. by air

  • Extending the transportation mask mandate two months to March 18

  • Requiring insurers to cover the cost of at-home rapid tests (new rules to be published by January 15)

Before news spread of the Omicron variant I predicted an extension of the mask mandate, that it would only sunset sometime prior to midterm elections 11 months from now. So an extension of the mask mandate isn’t surprising, but of course there’s no such requirement for large indoor gatherings not associated with public transportation.

There will be no requirement for a second Covid test 3-5 days after arrival into the U.S. While the CDC has been handing out such tests at a handful of airports to passengers arriving from Southern Africa, they have no process in place to ensure that people actually take those tests, or that they quarantine if testing positive. And there will be no requirement for mandatory quarantine on arrival, either, as some in the administration were pushing for.

We still mostly know only about the makeup of the Omicron variant, the number of mutations it has and what some of those mutations have meant in other variants. And we’ve seen a spike in cases in South Africa, where the variant was first identified, though we don’t know how many of those cases are Omicron versus a Delta spike after the country relaxed Covid restrictions.

It’s still not clear how much more transmissible this new variant is, whether it’s more or less virulent, and the extent to which it evades vaccination or immunity from prior infection. Despite this uncertainty it seems that transmissibility may not be as bad as initially feared, but it does seem (still speculative) to overcome immunity from prior infection with the Delta variant. Nonetheless anecdotal evidence which I’ve been skeptical so far is mounting about less severe disease and continued protection from vaccines especially after boosting.

The problem of course is that by the time we have answers to these questions it’s too late to do anything. Indeed, it may already be too late – the variant is being identified all over the world, and has been identified in the U.S. where we do less to sequence variants than many other countries. And the bigger problem is that these steps do little to stop or slow transmission of the virus here.

Requiring insurance to pay for testing isn’t as effective as removing barriers to the availability of cheap tests (self-tests often cost 10x here compared to parts of Europe). Pre-travel use of rapid tests identifies current infectiousness but doesn’t identify pre-infectious travelers. And these measures ignore rapid spread within the community already. Vaccinated travelers testing negative are far less likely to spread the virus than the median American in a bar.

We need widely available cheap tests, boosters, variant-specific and multivariant boosters, and immediate approval of small molecule inhibitors along with clinical guidance for already-available repurposed drugs like fluvoxamine.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. What type of test is required 24 hours prior to departure to thee US? In some places getting the results back from PCR is the bigger issue.

  2. Ray, it’s the quick antigen test. I got tested in Medellin, Colombia this past September on teh second day prior to my departure day for my flight to LAX and got the results on my phone about 6 hours after the test. Getting tested the day before should not be a problema as long as the testing requirement is for the day before departure day and not within 24 hours of flight departure time.

  3. @Gary: Many travel bloggers announced the new rules to enter the US. However, many readers and I do not find any articles/blogs about what airports offer rapid test or can we use Abbott’s self-test kit while out of the country, what are the hours of operation that they monitor when we conduct the self-test. It is very unclear, and I do not have much exeperience, therefore any advice is greatly appreciated. Thank you all.

  4. Remember, U.S. border control does NOT collect and does NOT verify the tests. The airlines are required to enforce this. So, it’s useless because airlines merely look at a test result and, of course, it’s pretty easy to fake a result for a kid with 5 minutes Microsoft Paint.

  5. I heard that there is not a single person hospitalized with this variant in South Africa, such is its mildness.

    Does anyone have information on this?

  6. @Gary When does the 24-hour testing requirement go into effect? I can’t find any details.

  7. Screw them. Sure I’ll get a one day test. They want people to stop traveling. it won’t work. They can’t stop us.

  8. @Gary – Maybe I just missed it but I’ve looked to understand specifically when the 24 hour period (or day before travel) requirement starts. For example, is it within 24 hours of the scheduled flight departure, the day before travel or 24 hours of scheduled arrival in the US? Also, how do flight delays factor in? Finally, if you have a connecting flight on the way back to the US, assuming it is 24 hours before flight departure, is that 24 hours before your initial flight or the connecting flight that actually take you to the US?

    Thanks Gary or anyone that can answer these questions.

  9. In short, vaccinated and unvaccinated people are now both treated the same (badly) forcing people to pay for an expensive test. So much for following science!
    Only a TOTAL RESCINTION of ALL (testing, quarantine, etc.) requirements for fully vaccinated people is acceptable!
    Can’t wait for November 2022 to arrive and see Biden and his fascist gang at the CDC to to jail.

  10. Do you expect the Abbott rapid (Home) tests to be covered by insurance once this guidance is issued? If so, that would bring the testing cost down to $0 for any international trip and be a big win for US travelers.

  11. @John: go to jail? Please spare us with stupid comments. If the orange blob didn’t get imprisoned nobody from this administration could possibly be. You still chanting “Lock her up”?

  12. @Gary – so this affects entry by air only? If I go on a cruise to say, the Bahamas departing from Florida, there is no test requirement to disembark at the end?

  13. @John: you are more ignorant than I credited you. You comment about Biden going to jail, I compare administrations, I have TDS. You right wing idiots are simply too stupid for life.


  14. @Ray,
    Guess you ran out of arguments and now start calling people names. So sad. I suggest you seek medical help with your Trump Derangement Syndrome.

  15. @AC — it’s by calendar day, not within 24 hours and is measured from the departure of your flight and not arrival in the US (or so I’ve read elsewhere).

    For instance, a flight departing 11pm on Tuesday and arriving on Wednesday would be a TUESDAY flight and would be satisfied by a test administered any time Monday or Tuesday.

    That said, the enforcement is done by check-in staff at the airport you’re leaving from and it’s possible they won’t interpret it that way (and would require a test after 11pm on Monday in the example I cited).

  16. “In short, vaccinated and unvaccinated people are now both treated the same (badly) forcing people to pay for an expensive test. So much for following science!”

    The scientific consensus now seems to be that infection rates don’t seem to be significantly lower among the vaccinated (although hospitalization and mortality are still lower), and most are inferring that transmission isn’t impeded by the vaccines.

  17. @Larry C – on the contrary,

    – infection rates are still significantly lower (e.g. 1/6th) but breakthrough infections are far more common
    – immunity also appears to wane

    Oddly the only place the CDC has recognized immunity from prior infection has been in waiving testing requirements for those recently recovered from Covid-19.

    Air travel rules aside GET BOOSTERS PEOPLE.

  18. “infection rates are still significantly lower (e.g. 1/6th)”

    I suspect the figure you cite refers to symptomatic infections. Keep in mind that the bulk of infections are asymptomatic, and recent studies in countries where vaccination began early show that vaccine efficacy against asymptomatic infection have declined to to a very low level (I saw 20% in a recent study). Where things get a bit more speculative is in determining how the two groups of infected individuals contribute to transmission…

  19. @Gary We are traveling to the UK for the holidays and have already ordered 2 day antigen test for arrival and another set for our departure prior to return to the US. They’ve been delivered to the UK address we are staying at. Are the antigen tests now useless and we’ll have to spend another 70 pounds per test on PCRs? Will the antigen tests still be ok for our return flights? Thanks

  20. what travel date are 1 daya (or 24 hr ) testing effective. I can’t find this anywhere & AA not updated. Thanks

  21. @ray if only those idiot s who do not think this is real die from it when they do get it… My mistake they are the ones at the cemetery now, saying if I only knew better. But the trump legacy lives on . trump dc hotel BYE trump ireland golf courses LOST MILLIONS. NJ too, how soon does trump declare another bankruptcy and get wife #4

  22. @John: You are the latest person to find out that Ray cannot disagree without being disagreeable.

  23. Can we please get some practical information on how thisone-day before departure testing will work? I visited Canada and it was a PITA to find a PCR test in a three-day time window that met their requirements. The US is apparently accepting antigen tests which are faster. But how do you get one quick and cheap overseas? I assume if I’m visiting a fancy Caribbean hotel they’ll have a system to wave a q-tip under my nose and I’ll be fine. But what about as an independent traveller in Europe, or visiting friends and family in Latin America, Asia or Africa? Is there anyone compiling the information necessary to do this travel? Without info, it seems like one big hassle.

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