Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, gave his annual State of the Travel Industry address Jan. 27 – laying out a plan to rejuvenate the travel industry in the wake of COVID-19 – which Dow said includes modernizing infrastructure and seizing “on the opportunity to reimagine a stronger, more innovative air travel system.”
Dow pointed to biometric technology and touchless travel as a key part of the path forward and urged for their accelerated adoption.
“Biometric identification provides faster facilitation, greater accuracy and a more secure travel environment. These touchless systems – which are important these days – also creates a more convenient, hygienic user experience; an important factor in dealing with this public health crisis,” Dow said.
The U.S. Travel Association is calling on the U.S. government to expand the biometric exit systems currently operating at 20 airports and seven seaports. The association is also asking the government to set and communicate clear standards for privacy and security.
“Biometric data must be used for identification purposes only, not for surveillance and law enforcement purposes,” Dow said.
He added that American citizens need to be able to participate and opt out of biometric screening voluntarily, “for any reason.”
Dow said that the Real ID act needs to be expanded and the enaction date pushed back. Currently, Real ID requirements are slated to go into effect Oct. 2021, but Dow says the pandemic has made it nearly impossible for American citizens to visit the DMV and acquire a Real ID and the number of people who do have an ID are too low.
“According to the Department of Homeland Security, only 38 percent of Americans are Real ID compliant,” said Dow. “Given the low compliance rate and the complications of the pandemic, many Americans could be turned away at security points in our airports unless the deadline is reasonably pushed.”
Dow continued that the Real ID enforcement deadline should be delayed until it can be proven through metrics that implementation won’t reverse or slow travel’s recovery.
“The federal government should also develop alternative screening procedures for travelers who show up to the airport without Real ID,” he added.
Streamlining International Travel
Dow’s final point of consideration for jumpstarting air travel is to condense and create more concise, advanced security measures for those entering and leaving the country. A more streamlined approach will be crucial in handling the resurgence of travelers, he said.
“TSA Pre-Check, Global Entry, Sentry and Nexus should all be consolidated into one program. Global Entry and Pre-Clearance locations should be expanded to the visa waiver program countries, and the U.S. should expedite visas for low-risk applicants and automate non-immigrant travel visas,” Dow said.
The above points are also part of a need to reinvigorate the U.S brand and boost tourism. Dow said that after the storming of the United States Capitol by rioters on January 6, the association fears the U.S. brand was tarnished.
“We’ve heard from people around the world, they saw the images just as we did at home, and we do believe that travel and bringing people to America and showing them what a safe country we have is one of the most important things we can do to bring back our economy,” Dow told reporters after his address. “This is an important thing we have to overcome.”
COVID-19 Tests and Travel
While the U.S. Travel Association is open to testing international travelers, when speaking with the media after the address, they said they do not feel that testing domestic travelers is the right move.
“We are very much in favor of international testing for opening up international travel. It will be the thing that opens up international travel around the world. We’re opposed to domestic criteria for testing prior to domestic flights,” Dow said.
Tori Barnes, executive vice president, public affairs and policy, U.S. Travel Association, said: “Our view is that it would be extremely problematic, difficult to enforce for many reasons – in particular, the high cost and low availability of testing, which would really make it quite unworkable. We’ve also seen this tremendous state by state patchwork approach to testing with the availability being very inconsistent throughout states.
“Based one January 2021 data, we also believe a testing requirement for domestic air travel could necessitate as much as 42 percent increase in daily testing capacity needs nationwide, is likely to increase the cost of travel and disproportionately effect the less advantaged because of the cost and availability issues.”
Barnes added that the association has communicated to multiple agencies, such as the White House, their worries about the damage domestic testing could have on travel and the economy.
However, the association is in support of measures such as mandates for masks to be worn on flights, social distancing orders and other hygienic best practices for safe air travel.
“We’ve seen rigorous studies that have said that travel can be safe as long as everyone follows the best health practices and our industry really has thought about this long and hard and has focused on this since the early days of the pandemic: Enforcing the use of masks, social distancing, staying home if your sick and hand sanitization,” Barnes said.