Just when things were looking up for airlines and the rest of the travel industry, another COVID-19 variant has emerged. The omicron variant, first reported this week in South Africa and already surfacing in other countries, instantly sparked restrictions on travel in the region.
The United States, which lifted a pandemic-long travel ban from dozens of international countries including South Africa on Nov. 8, on Monday will reinstitute the ban for foreign nationals from eight African countries.
“We’re going to be cautious, make sure there is no travel to and from South Africa and six other countries in that region. Except for American citizens who are able to come back,” President Joe Biden said Friday. “We don’t know a lot about the variant except that it is of great concern. It seems to spread rapidly. I spent about a half hour this morning with my COVID team led by Dr. Fauci and that was the decision we made.”
The president of the European Union Commission on Friday proposed a halt in air travel between the EU’s member states and southern Africa.
Here’s what travelers need to know about the new restrictions and the potential impact on travel in the months ahead if the omicron variant spreads rapidly across the globe. The World Health Organization on Friday labeled it a variant of concern. It also noted that in South Africa, omicron has been “detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection.”
Does the White House travel ban affect U.S. travelers?
U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents are exempt from the African countries ban. But as with all travelers flying into the United States from a foreign country, they will need to show a negative COVID test to board the flight – even if fully vaccinated.
The U.S. government hasn’t halted flights to or from the eight countries but on Saturday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of State raised their alert levels for the region, each recommending against travel.
The CDC issued a level 4 advisory, its highest, due to “very high” COVID levels, a level that carries an “avoid travel” designation. The State Department, whose COVID advisories generally parallel the CDC’s, also raised the countries to level 4, which means “do not travel.”
It was a dramatic jump in ratings. On Friday, South Africa, for example, was still rated a level 1 by the CDC and a level 2 by the State Department, the latter for crime, not COVID.
Airlines serving Africa are taking a wait-and-see attitude. United and Delta airlines are the only two U.S. carriers offering flights to and from Africa.
Delta Air Lines, which has three weekly flights between Atlanta and Johannesburg, South Africa, on Friday said it doesn’t have any plans to adjust the service “at this time.”
Travelers from North America who want to change their flights can do so without ticket change fees, the airline said.
“The health and safety of our employees and customers remains our top priority,” the airline said in a statement. “Delta will continue to work closely with our government partners to monitor the new COVID-19 variant and any travel restrictions.”
United, which launched flights to Johannesburg and Accra earlier this year and has plans to resume service to Cape Town in December, said it is monitoring the situation.
I’m not going to Africa but have other travel plans. Will omicron change the rules?
For now, the travel implications from the new omicron variant are limited. especially for U.S. travelers. But it’s early. The variant was only reported the day before Thanksgiving and if other phases of the pandemic are any indication, travel restrictions can quickly expand as cases and concerns grow.
In February 2020, before a pandemic was declared, the government and airlines were mainly focused on coronavirus hot spots like Italy. A month later, the international travel ban covering more than two dozen countries was announced.
One major difference today, which until now has led to the easing of travel restrictions across the world: COVID-19 vaccination rates. Health officials will be closely studying the vaccine’s effectiveness against the new variant.
Airlines for America, the lobbying group for the U.S. airline industry, is talking to the government about the specifics of international travel restrictions and said there are “many unanswered questions,” according to a statement from spokesman Carter Yang.
“Amid this this rapidly evolving situation, it is critical that U.S. government decisions regarding international travel restrictions and requirements be rooted in science,” the statement said.
Travelers should also be on the look out for any broad changes in travel guidance from the CDC. The CDC’s current guidance for international travel is only that U.S. travelers should be fully vaccinated; for domestic travel it advises that people delay travel until fully vaccinated but if they do travel to get tested before the trip and test and quarantine after the trip, among other safety measures.
Will the new COVID variant lead to a vaccine mandate for flights within the US?
Throughout the pandemic, there have been calls for tighter restrictions on flights within the United States. The effort was initially focused on mandatory pre-flight coronavirus testing, but airlines defeated that.
As vaccines have become available, the focus has shifted to requiring passengers to be vaccinated to board a domestic flight. That effort has garnered headlines but no formal action. U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttiegieg
Defeating COVID-19: Biden should require vaccine to fly.
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If the omicron variant spreads rapidly, that is likely to continue calls for a domestic vaccine mandate for air travelers.
For now, travelers do not need to show proof of vaccine or a negative COVID test to board a flight within the United States. One state, Hawaii, does require vaccine proof or a negative COVID test to bypass the vacation destinations strict quarantine upon arrival. Several popular vacation destinations outside the US also have entry requirements.
The mask mandate on planes is due to end in January. Will the omicron variant change that?
The federal mask mandate on public transportation, including airplanes and at airports, is due to expire on Jan. 18.
Will it be extended again if the new variant spreads widely?
That’s not out of the question. The Transportation Security Administration announced the latest extension of the mandate in August— it was due to expire Sept. 13 at that point — as the highly contagious delta variant was sweeping across the nation.
It came after the CDC recommended wearing masks indoors again whether vaccinated or unvaccinated due to the delta variant.
At this point, are travel experiences and opportunities impacted at all?
All tourism products and experiences are currently open to travelers with all the health and safety protocols in place, says Thandiwe Mathibela, spokeswoman for South African Tourism.
“We are anticipating an update from our National Corona Command Council, which is the government and private sector body that was set up to monitor developments around COVID and formulate responses accordingly,” said Mathibela. “At this stage, our borders remain open and we stand ready to welcome visitors from across the world.”