and Testing
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 1, 2020 -- Here is this week's news in brief: Assuming you ever get to an airport again, you'll see many fewer airline employees and many more Coronavirus tests.

Both, I hasten to add, will make travel better.

Let us dispatch with the employee issue first because, honestly, we've been dealing with it since the pandemic began.

Airlines and their employee groups have loudly insisted that they deserve special treatment over and above any other industry or workers during this brutal health crisis. Our feckless leaders agreed with them and handed over upwards of $60 billion--$25 billion as an outright grant--on the theory that we had to keep empty planes flying and airline workers specially compensated.

The money train--mixed metaphor, eh?--ran out yesterday. Airlines and their unions were demanding another $25 billion, but that didn't happen because our leaders couldn't agree on how much more of our money to piss away. So the airlines began laying off its workers. Between United, American and American's wholly owned commuter carriers, 35,000 employees will lose their jobs by the weekend.

That's sad. Tragic. Terrible personal tragedies for those involved. And I'm not being facetious. I feel badly for those employees, just as I feel for the tens of millions who've lost their jobs in the pandemic.

But the airlines were asking for $25 billion. That's an outrageous $700,000 or so per job--and saved only for six months of continued employment. That's an atrocious deal even in these crazed times.

But there is something else: As I've been saying for months, the airlines need to get their operational houses in order. In September, only about 21.5 million of us were in the skies. That's less than a third of the volume of last September--and less than the number of people who flew in August. By the airlines' own admission, there is no recovery on the horizon and, as a second wave of Coronavirus seems sure to whack us, traffic will surely decline more.

Why would we throw $25 billon down that rat hole?

The future will be hard for airlines and their remaining employees. It will be painful. It will be difficult. There will be months and years of turmoil. But airlines need to rip off the bandage, take the hit and get right-sized for 2021 and beyond. There's no justification for forking over another penny to an industry in chaos and disarray.

Now for the better news: Airlines and airports have realized, finally, that there will be no travel without testing. I've been saying that for months and I don't know why the travel industry took so long to get the basic logic. With the federal government in denial and many state governments floundering, the travel industry was always going to have to do it themselves.

Although there were sporadic earlier efforts, nothing seemed to jell until Hawaii announced it finally would reopen to travelers on October 15. The state has been locked down for months--and you will still be required to quarantine for 14 days unless you can show that you've tested negative within three days before departing for the Aloha State.

The problem? Hawaii actually hasn't got its testing regimen in place yet. United Airlines, traditionally the largest carrier between the mainland and the islands, wisely stepped into the gap. It announced last week that it struck a deal to allow San Francisco-Honolulu passengers to buy the 15-minute Abbott test at the airport or do a cheaper, slower option by mail. More importantly, United cleared its plans with the state so both tests will be acceptable.

The United announcement was hastily followed by Hawaiian Airlines, which promises drive-through testing in San Francisco and Los Angeles. And today Hawaiian added a mail-in option. On Tuesday, American Airlines chimed in, claiming it would do Jamaica and the Caribbean, too. Alaska Airlines, which devoted 20 percent of its capacity to Hawaii flights before the pandemic, jumped in yesterday, although its testing will only be available in downtown Seattle to start. Desperate to get people to fly to Hawaii via Oakland, the Bay Area's second airport announced its own scheme to test travelers headed to the islands. It should be in place by next week.

Confused yet? It gets worse--or better considering at least we're now talking about testing and travel in the same breath. Several airports are now testing or selling tests for any interested passengers headed to any destination. XpressSpa, until now known for its in-airport mini-spas, has refocused its business. It offers by-appointment testing at two airports, Newark and New York/Kennedy. Tests for employees are available at San Francisco International and, obviously, the plan is to expand the program to flyers, too. In Connecticut, Hartford/Bradley Airport yesterday began offering Coronavirus testing to arriving passengers. That'll help visitors avoid the state's 14-day quarantine. Alaska allows visitors to bypass the state's 14-day quarantine with an accepted negative test and has set up testing programs at its largest airports.

Most intriguing of all, Tampa International has made testing available to all travelers. A pilot program, which began today, will continue for a month. And it seems to me to be a good model for the future. If you are flying, you can do your testing at the airport before or after you fly.

It's clearly early days, of course, but we can already see the trap doors that testing will create.

The first is cost. Some tests cost upwards of $250. As a one-off for a holiday, that's not too bad, I guess. But if you'll need a test every time you travel somewhere, the financial implications are troubling. This is no cheap approach to getting back on the road.

The second is the natural confusion about the types of testing available. This is no small matter. Covid-19 tests vary widely in speed, in accuracy and the ease of the tests themselves. Thankfully, our friend David Rowell has a useful explainer. It's a worthy read.

Trap door Number Three? Figuring out which tests are accepted by which destinations and how close to arrival date they must be taken.

This is going to be complex and expensive, fellow travelers. But it's a start. And we've waited months to even get a start, so let's hope for the best.

Because we need hope just now. A lot of hope.