Biden easing foreign air travel restrictions, requiring vaccines

President Joe Biden will ease air travel restrictions into the U.S. beginning in November, when his administration will require all foreign nationals flying into the country to be fully vaccinated.

U.S. land borders with Canada, Mexico to remain closed to non-essential travel through Oct. 21

Beginning in November, the U.S. will require all foreign nationals flying into the country to be fully vaccinated. (Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press)

The U.S. said Monday it will ease airline restrictions this fall on travel to the country for people who have proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test, replacing rules that had kept out many non-citizens and irritated allies in Europe and beyond where virus cases are far lower.

The new rules will replace a hodgepodge of restrictions that had barred non-citizens who had been in Europe, much of Asia and certain other countries in the prior 14 days from entering the U.S. The changes will allow families and others who have been separated by the travel restrictions for 18 months to plan for long-awaited reunions.

The White House also indicated that restrictions on non-essential travel from Canada and Mexico through land borders will remain in place through Oct. 21.

All foreign travellers flying to the U.S. will need to demonstrate proof of vaccination before boarding, as well as proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of flight, said White House COVID-19 co-ordinator Jeff Zients, who announced the new policy on Monday.

There will be some exceptions to the vaccine policy, officials said, including for children not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

Biden will also tighten testing rules for unvaccinated American citizens, who will need to be tested within a day before returning to the U.S., as well as after they arrive home.

Fully vaccinated passengers will not be required to quarantine, Zients said.

New policy takes effect in November

The new policy replaces a patchwork of travel restrictions first instituted by president Donald Trump last year and tightened by Biden earlier this year. Those rules restricted travel by non-citizens who had, in the prior 14 days, been in the United Kingdom, European Union, China, India, Iran, Republic of Ireland, Brazil and South Africa.

The travel bans had become the source of growing geopolitical frustration, particularly among allies in the U.K. and EU, where virus cases are far lower than the U.S. The easing comes ahead of Biden's meetings with some European leaders on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly this week.

"This is based on individuals rather than a country-based approach, so it's a stronger system," Zients said.

The EU and U.K. had previously moved to allow vaccinated U.S. travellers in without quarantines in an effort to boost business and tourism. But the EU recommended last month that some travel restrictions be reimposed on U.S. travellers to the bloc because of the rampant spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus in the States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will also require airlines to collect contact information from international travellers to facilitate contact tracing, Zients said.

It was not immediately clear which vaccines would be acceptable under the U.S. system and whether those not approved in the U.S. could be used. Zients said that decision would be up to the CDC.

He said the new air travel policy will take effect in "early November," to allow airlines and travel partners time to prepare to implement the new protocols.

'Fantastic boost for business'

Britain welcomed the U.S. announcement that it is lifting quarantine requirements for vaccinated international travellers.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted that he was "delighted" by the news.

"It's a fantastic boost for business and trade, and great that family and friends on both sides of the pond can be reunited once again."

Britain scrapped quarantines for fully vaccinated travellers from the U.S. and the European Union in early August, and has been pushing for Washington to ease its rules. 

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Airlines hailed the U.S. decision as a lifeline for the struggling industry. 

Worldwide, air travel is still down more than half from pre-pandemic levels, and the decline is much sharper for cross-border flying.

By July, domestic travel had recovered to 84 per cent of 2019 numbers, but international travel was just 26 per cent of the same month two years ago, according to figures released in September by the airline industry's main global trade group, the International Air Transport Association.

The numbers are similar but not quite as stark for the U.S., where international travel in August was 46 per cent of that in August 2019, according to Airlines for America. Arrivals by non-U.S. citizens were only 36 per cent of the 2019 norm.

New policy 'major breakthrough' for travel

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of industry body Airlines U.K., said the new policy was "a major breakthrough."

Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, said it was "a major milestone to the reopening of travel at scale, allowing consumers and businesses to book travel to the U.S. with confidence."

"The U.K. will now be able to strengthen ties with our most important economic partner, the U.S., boosting trade and tourism as well as reuniting friends, families and business colleagues," Weiss said.

Airlines have heavily lobbied the White House for months to lift the restrictions, but were unsuccessful at having them lifted in time for the summer travel season.

The White House said in July it had concerns about the highly infectious delta variant of the coronavirus and a rising number of U.S. COVID-19 cases.

The seven-day average of reported U.S. COVID-19 cases has more than doubled since then.

'It's a happy day'

French entrepreneur Stephane Le Breton, 45, expressed joy that he will finally be able to book his trip to New York City that had been put on hold due to the restrictions.

"I felt frustrated that I couldn't go to the U.S. as I had planned. It just didn't make sense that authorities weren't letting in vaccinated EU citizens."

Le Breton, who lives in the Boulogne suburb of Paris, said he feels that the U.S. lifting the restrictions is a sign that the world is heading to a new, better phase of the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's a happy day. Big Apple, here I come!"

With files from Reuters