What Needs To Happen For People To Travel Safely Again

The head of London’s Heathrow airport is crying foul over lack of screening procedures for arrivals and departures at his airport. He wants the U.K. government to impose “mass screenings at airports..which could include temperature checks, antibody tests and a requirement that all passengers carry health passports proving they are medically fit.”

The U.K. has a major outbreak of coronavirus. It’s already in the country. Heathrow’s boss is concerned with incremental cases coming in, while the country’s health service is concerned about the geometric growth of cases from people already there. There are no COVID-related bans on travel to the U.K., though the government asks arrivals to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Heathrow Chief Executive John Holland-Kaye says his concern is that airports are coming under criticism for lack of action. He wants internationally-agreed upon standards to follow. Then no one can criticize him. Earlier in the month he described his call to action as being “a little bit like the liquids ban” at airport security which should tell you something about the effectiveness of proposed measures.

In fact the major approaches to ensuring arriving passengers are safe and are not infected all have limitations – so severe that they may not provide much protection at all.

  • Taking temperatures will only make a small difference. It does nothing to catch someone that’s asymptomatic and that’s now believed to be a major factor in spread.

  • Testing at the border isn’t foolproof either. First, someone may have caught the virus but doesn’t yet shed enough of it to show up in tests. Second, testing error rates are high. Many tests currently in use in the U.S. have error rates up to 30%.

  • Immunity passports aren’t foolproof either. You may have had the virus, and demonstrate antibodies to it, but we do not know yet what level of antibodies are needed for immunity, how long immunity lasts, or whether it’ll prevent infection against any variant strains of the novel coronavirus.

That’s why arriving passengers are asked to self-quarantine for fourteen days. The assumption is that anyone coming into an area might have the virus no matter their current medical condition, so they should stay away from everyone until the time they would be presumed well if they haven’t developed symptoms.

Even that may not be enough – someone may be asymptomatic but still test positive for the virus after weeks as China has learned. Others may see a resurgence in the virus up to 35 days after being cleared. These are outlier cases. One infected person entering a country may cause zero problems, with the virus dying out, or could infect several people who go on to infect several others.

The world can’t sit around in stasis until a vaccine is developed. There are a number of promising candidates, but in a best case scenario it’s unlikely one will be widely available within two years. Even if one is developed in 12 months, having a vaccine is different than manufacturing and distributing enough of it (or for that matter having enough needles to administer it, if that’s the mechanism used).

On the other hand let’s not forget the purpose of lockdowns from the outset, “flattening the curve.” We aren’t going to extinguish the virus and in many places we may not even reduce the total number of people who get it. Instead we’ve needed to keep health care systems from becoming overwhelmed, and buy time so that,

  • We can scale up health care capacity, from ICU beds, to ventilators (which don’t seem to help much), to personal protective equipment.
  • Develop better treatments (and treatments should come sooner than a vaccine) in order to improve patient outcomes and reduce time in hospital, further reducing the strain on capacity.
  • We’re able to scale up the ability to test, isolate, and trace contacts to contain the virus once it’s under control.

In other words the point of lockdowns was to make the global pandemic more manageable so that when it spreads it doesn’t do as much damage.

There are still places in the world that will be very vulnerable even once treatments arrive. Different countries will do better – and less well – scaling up preparedness.

There will be a return to life, and even a return to travel. It won’t look like what it did before, both in terms of level of activity or the actual experience.

We probably won’t see blocked middle seats after some initial period. The real estate on an aircraft is valuable, and removing as much as one-third of seats for sale will make travel more expensive. And we probably won’t see novel seats with built-in plastic shields installed on planes. Airlines are strapped for financing as it is, major capital projects to retrofit planes with newly acquired seats seem unlikely.

However we’ll need to find ways to distance. It isn’t just on board the aircraft but in the gate areas, and the jetway. Queuing needs to be rethought. So does airport security where passengers shouldn’t be standing body to body, shouldn’t be placing their belongings on poorly sanitized equipment or walking barefoot through screening devices. And so too does immigration where queuing will be problematic as well.

Security will have to stop requiring that you hand over your ID, so that they can touch it. This should be automated. (Get CLEAR and use their iris scan, not finger prints.) TSA, airport and airline employees will need to go through the same layers of screening that passengers are put through. And government is going to need to focus on air flow and air quality in the cabin – talking about HEPA filters isn’t enough, the more we learn about how air circulation carries the virus. That work needs to start now but my sense is that it isn’t happening.

People will need to wear masks and carry hand sanitizer. And wash their hands regularly. TSA excluding hand sanitizer from 3 ounce liquid limits needs to be made permanent.

And those at the greatest risk will need to avoid gatherings. It’s not possible to completely isolate the elderly who have significant confounding conditions, after all there are people who need to care for them who may themselves get sick and spread the virus. But for most people there will be a decision about acceptable risk combined with measures that reduce spread of the virus and imperfect measures that may amount to theater (to make citizens feel their government is ‘doing something’) as much as to prevent the virus from traveling.

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. I meant “atomic bomb” not “atomic bond”. Luckily, I am not Trump. If I was Trump, such a typo would cause a week of snark on mainstream media.

  2. Wow OJS truly is a troll, parroting the Trump line about how somehow making it easier & safer for people to vote will lead to fraud (which ironically has only happened recently w/ a Republican candidate in NC-9). I look forward to OJS hopefully leaving the travel blogs and returning to his alt right sites after Nov 3.

  3. OJS comes across as one of Trump’s Deranged Supporters.
    What will it take for OJS and the rest of the TDS crowd to realize that Trump is a (Putin-favored) curse on America and America will become great again once Trump loses his 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW address to an elected person of better character and capability for leadership at a time of crisis. Trump is a bumbling crisis of his own making. And unlike Obama, Biden, Hillary Clinton, GW Bush, GHW Bush, Reagan and Ford, Trump seems to love getting attention more than he loves doing the right thing for the country.

  4. @OJS, I think you would have to admit in all honesty that a POTUS any POTUS who talks about using dangerous products on humans as being potentially beneficial is a really bad idea even if there was no call to actually do it. Surely you realize there are people who might go out and do it just because the President thought it might be a good idea. The ones most likely to do so are the President’s die hard supporters who buy into his stable genius, never make a mistake image he so desperately wants people to believe. It was irresponsible. Period.

    Obama was a great President in my view. Gonzo is wrong. Obama brought the country out of the Great Recession which began in 2008 as a result of things happening previously.
    But I can admit Obama made mistakes. Every President does. When people refuse to admit the obvious, keep making excuses, ignoring facts, and accepting lies it makes them seem irrational even if they aren’t.

    Why do rational people act as if they have lost the ability to think for themselves when it comes to Trump? That is the $64,000 question.

  5. Time to separate the signal from the noise by providing the tales of the tape on two presidents facing roughly the same challenges: Obama vs. Trump.

    The swine flu pandemic hit the U.S. in April 2009, in the midst of the Great Recession, and lasted until August 2010. A pandemic + an economic severe downturn make the situation somewhat similar to what we have right now. Back then, the adults, led by Obama, were in charge and they went to work. The result, which even diehard Trump supporters cannot dispute since it’s recent history that we all lived through, is that Obama pulled us out of the Great Recession, igniting along the way a throbbing and vibrant economy that Trump would inherit. Obama’s response to the swine flu was so successful and the virus’ impact so limited that that pandemic is just a faint and distant memory in most people’s minds. The only difference between then and now? The chief executive in charge, i.e., Obama instead of Trump.

    There is a clear syllogism in the preceding, with an inescapable and damning conclusion: The blame for the failed response to the Coronavirus pandemic rests squarely at Trump’s feet, and nothing captures the lack of presidential leadership more than this: Traveling Medicine Shows, laughed out of existence nearly a couple of centuries ago, have returned in full force on the “Trump 5pm Horror Show”….in the White House!

    A little disinfectant to cure your covd-19 instantly, anyone?

  6. John, Obama wasn’t my favorite. His use of regulation to strangle businesses, especially small ones, was unfortunate. He also reigned over the worst economic recovery in history. I also don’t think GWB was the best of all time either. He was a great peacetime governor, but for good reason never intended to be a wartime president.

    My point was more that states have more power, and rightfully so, than the federal government, let alone the executive branch, in situations like these. The situation in NY (esp The city) is wildly different from South Dakota…or Utah…or Orange County. The farther down towards local that you can get on this situation the better. Our federal government is too big and unwieldy to handle a situation like this anyway.

    Besides, it’s not Trump making 99% of day to day decisions. It’s lifer bureaucrats that were probably there in the Obama admin and likely could have been there with GWB. Yes, Trump says dumb s^&*t. More than any other president in our time. But the executive branch runs what it runs regardless of who is in the White House, and the Federal Government is really only good at managing financial markets at this point. The VA was a mess under Obama, and it’s a mess now. Healthcare is not the federal governments forte. Medicare is a maze of terrible economic incentives. Medicaid outcomes are actually worse than no healthcare at all in most studies (and the states are largely in charge of medicaid anyway).

    Governors, from Abbot in Texas to Newsom in Cali to Cuomo in NY have all done a great job of representing their constituents and keeping people as safe as possible. I could quarrel with both the Michigan governor and GA governor on opposite ends of the spectrum, but both of them have fairly good approval ratings during the shutdown in their states. Bravo for them. That’s what they are supposed to do; respond to the wants/needs of their state. I live in Texas and have business in California, and I’m pleased with both governors, who are so wide across the spectrum they can’t even see each other. It’s all good.

    Stop telling ppl they’re wrong b/c you have a political bent without supplying any relevant data or explanation to support your point other than ‘you think’.

    I’ll once again make the point that this is a travel blog, not a crazy left winger who hates trump vs crazy right winger who hates liberals. You want whoever to go back to their alt-right user group; you can go back to WaPo or the NYT. Same difference to me.

  7. @DCS – H1N1 wasn’t nearly as dangerous as covid-19.

    If you want to make this Obama vs Trump, about specific leaders, you need to point to a Western democracy that was actually well prepared for this?

  8. @Gary — When it was done the H1N1 had claimed over 500,000 worldwide, but you miss the point, which is the seriousness of the respective administrations response. Tough to prove a negative but how do we know that we would not have had more than 18K death in the US if the Obama administration had downplayed the risk of the H1N1 like Trump did the Coronavirus?

    Every one of the western democracies took the threat more seriously than Trump, that’s undeniable…

  9. @John. I am sorry, anyone that is stupid enough to inject himself with Clorox (I mean a lower IQ than even UA-NYC if that is possible) deserves what he gets. The thing is, both you and the mainstream media know that Trump did not say people should inject themselves with Clorox. Nor did he mean for people to do that. You had to take two or three liberal leaps to even think that is what he was suggesting. Really, John, being an Obama acolyte, why don’t you complain about Trump on policy issues, rather than this really dumb stuff.

  10. @Gonzo – “worst economic recovery in history”? History revision much? SMH.

    Obama took over Jan ’09 when the economy was contracting at -9% year over year. Turned into an 8 year bull market that Trump road the coattails of.

  11. Iceland has had only ten deaths from the virus situation, and that amounts to less than 30 dead per million. Sweden has close to 225 dead per million. And the US has about 170 dead per million. Has Iceland managed the situation well?

    Iceland is an island nation with a very small population, but they are not an isolated nation when it comes to American and European traffic.

    And how is New Zealand doing with this virus? Seems like it has done relatively well so far.

  12. @UA-NYC Which was the slowest growing recovery in history, post-recession. Just the facts. And my point was that presidents don’t have that much influence on what happens day to day, not that Obama was a terrible manager of the economy. The Fed has outsized influence on the market, and keeping interest rates low has been a lot more driver of stocks pre-COVID than who was in the White House, as noted that the market didn’t change much (and what it did was positive w/ higher growth) when Trump replaced Obama.

    You guys are all SOOO worried about protecting your choice of president on a travel blog. This is weird. Both Obama and Trump ppl. Geez.

  13. @Gonzo – Forbes (not exactly the most Dem friendly) called the time under Obama “longest period of economic growth and job creation in American history”. Chuck Jones, Feb 17, 2020 article.

    Also, per the article – “Trump’s boasts about how many jobs he has added don’t include the fact that he has generated 6.5 million jobs under his Presidency vs. the 8.1 million, or 1.6 million fewer than Obama did during his last three years in office. In fact, Trump’s best year of job growth (2018) doesn’t even beat any of Obama’s last three years.”

    It’s OK to admit life under him was pretty good – you seem decently smart & balanced (unlike the unhinged troll Other Just Saying – now THAT guy is truly stupid, and a light racist to boot)

  14. @Gary — All of them. Germany, Italy, France, UK, Canada, but let’s not get bogged down in imprecise use of terms. I am not sure what you mean by ” better prepared”. It is tough to be fully prepared for a virus that does not yet exist. What one can prepare for is how quickly one responds, for which one develops an infrastructure based on various scenarios. On its way out, the Obama pandemic response team had organized several meetings and dry-runs with the incoming Trump team, which, by several accounts, did not seem to take the abstract threat in the drills seriously. In 2018, the Trump administration disbanded Obama’s NSC Global Health Security and Biodefense unit, established in 2015 to be responsible for pandemic preparedness. That is the background.

    Then when the Coronavirus pandemic hit, Trump, with his chronic incompetence and malignant narcissism, wasted nearly two months during which he could have taken decisive action to ‘flatten the curve’ and save American lives. Instead, he kept downplaying the threat, promising that it would be gone by April, or calling it a liberal “hoax” designed to spook the markets and tank the economy to hurt his reelection chances. Well, that was brilliant, wasn’t? His inaction led precisely to what he was accusing the liberals of trying to do to him! The markets got spooked, the economy has tanked and is in Great Depression territory, and Trump’s reelection chances have barely a pulse.

    The response in the other liberal democracies was decisive and swift. It is why the leaders of those democracies got huge bumps in their approval ratings, while Trump got a meager bump of just 3-4 points that disappeared almost as suddenly as it appeared.

    You can look all that up.

  15. @Gary Australia, Iceland, Germany, South Korea, etc…all of them did MUCH better than we are doing. Heck, CANADA is doing much better as well. We had TONS of notice this was probably coming…but yet until the VERY end Trump pretended it didn’t exist…then it was under control, and then FINALLY, he knew it was going to be bad the entire time. Was anyone PERFECT? No…but other countries handled this 1000x better than us.

  16. @Joelfreak I’m not talking about outcomes, which Western democracies (obviously that doesn’t include South Korea!) were *better prepared*? Germany was a mess and late to the game, it spread early amongst a young population so they had time to scale up testing.

    South Korea, Taiwan absolutely handled this better again that isn’t in the set we’re talking about.

  17. @DCS you are seriously arguing that France and Italy were better prepared for COVID-19? And the U.K. which flip flopped strategy?

  18. @Gary — Compared to how the US handled it, absolutely. But again, your use of the imprecise phrase ‘better prepared’ suggests that you did not fully read my prior post that provided context.

    To suggest that Germany was a “mess and late to the game”, when that is diametrically opposite to reality makes one wonders from where you get your news…

  19. @Gary, here is what I meant regarding your claim about Germany’s response.

    Reopening puts Germany’s *much-praised* coronavirus response at risk
    By Kai Kupferschmidt, Gretchen Vogel, Apr. 27, 2020 , 2:35 PM

    Source: *Science* (the journal)

    “Many things have played in Germany’s favor so far. A team led by Christian Drosten at Charité University Hospital in Berlin developed the world’s first diagnostic test for SARS-CoV-2 in mid-January, which was quickly shared worldwide. After a cluster of cases in Bavaria in late January showed how easily the virus spreads, Germany ramped up testing earlier than most countries, helped by a wide, decentralized network of diagnostic labs. In March, the country shut down public life in time to avoid the overwhelmed hospitals and sobering death tolls of Italy, France, Spain, and Switzerland. (Most hospitals are operating well below capacity, and many have welcomed patients from overburdened hospitals in Italy, France, and the Netherlands.) So far, Germany has had just over 152,000 confirmed cases, but only 5500 deaths, far fewer per capita than most European countries. About 2000 new cases are now diagnosed every day, down from 5000 in mid-March.”

  20. @Gonzo, Stop telling ppl they’re wrong b/c you have a political bent without supplying any relevant data or explanation to support your point other than ‘you think’.

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