CDC Calls for Screening of Passengers Flying to U.S.

Proof of a negative coronavirus test taken within three days of travel will be required for private and commercial flights.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued an order requiring all air passengers entering the U.S. to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test or recovery from the virus. Effective January 26, passengers two years old or older will have to produce written documentation (either electronic or paper) of a negative result from a test taken within three days of the flight's departure or recovery from the virus. The order builds on requirements in place for U.K. commercial passengers.

Operators must confirm the negative result or documentation of recovery before the passenger boards, the CDC said. Operators must deny boarding to any passenger who fails to provide such documentation or refuses the test. The order applies to "any airline or operator with an aircraft arriving into the U.S." Crewmembers are exempt, as are federal law enforcement personnel on official duties and those carrying COVID-19 patients with CDC authorization.

“It’s important to note this order applies to all aircraft operators, including non-commercial aircraft operators,” said Brian Koester, director of flight operations and regulations for the National Business Aviation Association. “NBAA previously requested the CDC and FAA provide alternate procedures for passengers departing countries with no COVID-19 testing capacity or documentation that doesn’t meet the CDC requirements for a qualifying test. The order published recently provides a waiver process for those scenarios.”

The National Air Transportation Association (NATA), meanwhile, strongly advised “operators to proactively reach out to international travelers to ensure they have a testing plan for their trip.” In addition, NATA said operators should review contracts and cancellation policies to ensure they account for any potential contingencies associated with the order. These range from a positive test to passenger refusal to test or provide documentation, or passenger failure to test in the required timeframe.

Noting that the U.S. is already in surge status for the virus and new international variants are showing increased transmissibility, the CDC said testing before and after travel is critical to slow the introduction and spread of COVID-19.

“Testing does not eliminate all risk,” said CDC director Robert Redfield, M.D., who signed the order, “but when combined with a period of staying at home and everyday precautions like wearing masks and social distancing, it can make travel safer, healthier, and more responsible by reducing spread on planes, in airports, and at destinations.”

The new CDC order could provide a path to unwinding proclamations issued by President Donald Trump in the early stages of the COVID pandemic that excluded all citizens of China, Iran, the European Union, and the U.K. from entering the U.S. in almost all circumstances. The ban covered more than two billion people (just over one-quarter of the world’s population) and also applied to any non-U.S. citizens and travelers from other countries who had been to any of these territories in the previous 14 days.