White House COVID-19 official to meet with airline CEOs Friday: sources

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The chief executives of major U.S. airlines are scheduled to meet virtually on Friday with the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator to discuss a number of travel-related issues, three people briefed on the matter told Reuters on Wednesday.

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The meeting with coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients and other administration officials involved in COVID-19 issues comes as airlines, aviation unions and other industry groups have strongly objected to the possibility of requiring predeparture COVID-19 testing before domestic flights.

The White House declined to comment, and major airlines declined or did not respond to requests for comment. The three people spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting has not been made public.

Southwest Airlines Co Chief Executive Gary Kelly and the leaders of the airline’s unions urged President Joe Biden in a letter not to mandate COVID-19 testing, saying it would put “jobs at risk.”

“Such a mandate would be counterproductive, costly, and have serious unintended consequences,” said the letter, which was dated Tuesday but released on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, the Allied Pilots Association, representing the American Airlines’ 15,000 pilots, said “mandatory pre-flight testing would be unwarranted, logistically impractical, and wasteful, and it would seriously threaten the stability of our industry.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last month said the Biden administration was “actively looking” at expanding mandatory COVID-19 testing to U.S. domestic flights. The CDC on Jan. 26 began requiring negative COVID-19 tests or evidence of recovery from the disease from nearly all U.S.-bound international passengers age 2 and older.

The federal government has been mulling additional measures to fight the spread of the coronavirus, but officials said there is no formal proposal on testing currently being circulated within the administration.

On Friday, two senior Boeing Co executives warned the White House that requiring COVID-19 tests before U.S. flights could pose significant economic harm.

CDC officials have repeatedly urged Americans not to travel unless necessary. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said on Monday that additional screening at places where people gather like airports could help detect more asymptomatic cases.

Last week, Sara Nelson, a top aviation union leader, said that new domestic testing requirements could devastate the airline industry.

U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio, chair of the House of Representatives’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, raised significant concerns about domestic testing requirements in a meeting with Biden last Friday.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told Reuters last week that decisions about domestic testing will be “guided by facts and by science.”

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